Anatomy of a good apology

The word “sorry” is easy to abuse, thrown in the face of an unhappy person like a wall that shuts down conversation without getting into the details of whatever went wrong. Used badly, a so-called apology can do more long-term harm than good. This post is about raising your awareness of both bad and good apology practices.

Red flags

There are a few easy ways to spot a bad apology:

  • The angry apology: “Sorry, ok! Sorry!”
  • The hypothetically apology: “I’m sorry if my words offended you.”
  • The blame apology: “I’m sorry that you didn’t speak up before I ate the last piece of cheese.”
A bad apology from Donnie Darko.

It’s easy to make these mistakes. I’m aware of them, and in emotional moments, I still catch myself about to spout such ill-fated phrases. It helps to remember the short flags that an angry mind can still notice: angry-sorry, sorry-if, sorry-that-you.

The heart of the matter

There are many ideas about what an apology can mean. Some may see it as a way to accept responsibility for something gone wrong. Others may see it as an expression of compassion. I’m not going to define the word for everyone, but I’m going to single out the one positive application of an apology that I see as both fundamental and universal:

When I talk about an apology in this post, I’m talking about an attempt to repair a relationship where someone’s been hurt.

To be clear, some apologies may be expressed in a way that expresses sympathy without admitting a connection to the harm done: “I got fired,” says Juanita. “I’m sorry,” says Alfonzo, although he had nothing to do with her termination. I’m talking about the specific case when you, the apologizer, sincerely want to repair the relationship and are willing to talk about your connection to the harm done.

One of the main results of this perspective is that the emotions involved are primarily those of the apologee, the person being apologized to. If someone feels bad about something, you can’t refute that. They are the ultimate authority on their feelings, and it’s usually harmful to try to change someone else’s mind about their own feelings. So the first step is to accept the apologee’s perspective about how they feel, which is independent of accepting any subjective or external perspectives they might have.

Understanding versus agreeing

One of the best methods I’ve ever learned about communicating well is to separate the idea of understanding someone from the idea of agreeing with them. Most people are sane and, simply by virtue of sanity, this means that their point of view makes complete and utter sense to them no matter how much you disagree with it.

In other words, even where there’s great disagreement, there’s the opportunity for complete understanding. You may hate anchovies, but if there’s anything you ever used to hate and now like, maybe you can imagine a future you liking anchovies. It’s not easy to make these mental leaps, but it’s possible. And, perhaps most importantly:

Telling someone you understand them doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.

In fact, understanding someone costs you nothing in terms of a disagreement — except, perhaps, patience and good will—and it brings you both closer to resolution.

Since an apology is about repairing a relationship, an expression of understanding is a great way to begin:

  • If you would feel the same way the apologee did in their situation, say so.
  • If not, you can still express that you see how their feelings can make sense.

Responsibility and defense

In some cases, you may feel responsible for what happened, while in others you don’t. Since I’m talking about repairing a relationship, then there’s still room to reach out even when you feel the other person is somehow doing something wrong. As a silly example, suppose you made a hand gesture that’s friendly in the US but offensive based on the cultural background of a friend. It’s obvious to you that your gesture was friendly and that your intentions were good, so why should your friend feel bad?

If you don’t want to use the word “sorry” in this situation, there’s no need to. You can still express an understanding of their feelings along with a desire to make things better. If you feel bad that they feel bad, say so.

It can be tempting to defend yourself, and see this as part of an apology. Except in cases of obviously missing information on the part of the apologee, I don’t think a defense fits in with an apology. Such a conversation can happen, but it can easily feel like a distraction from what needs attention right now: the apologee’s emotions — not your own sense of justice or desire to be understood.

Acknowledging the past and the future

One of the things that can make an apologee feel worse is a lack of validation about their feelings, or a fear that whatever went wrong may go wrong again. Both of these issues can be addressed directly when you explicitly convey awareness of what went wrong, and then go on to outline a plan for how a similar future problem can be avoided. Both people may even feel better walking away from a constructive conversation that adds transparency to how both people work, and that strengthens the future of the relationship by learning from any past mistakes.

In summary:

  • Try hard to understand their point of view.
  • You don’t have to agree, but if you do, it’s nice to say so.
  • Show that you care about their feelings, and want them to feel better.
  • If you feel responsible, say so.
  • Talk about what can be changed to avoid the problem in the future.
  • If you want to defend yourself, make that a separate conversation.

Relationships are the stuff of life. Rewarding but tricky. Keeping them healthy is hard work, but well worth it.

(Also, I’m not subposting to anyone! When I think about this stuff, it’s mostly so that I can do a better job at improving my own relationships, and try to make up for my own foibles.)