The Art of the Apology

The famous line from the ’70s movie Love Story was Love means never having to say you’re sorry.  I’m sorry, but what horse poo that was! A more appropriate line might be love means knowing when you need to say you’re sorry and having the cojones to do it.  I realize that’s not as elegant sounding, but it rings a lot truer to me.

First, love isn’t perfect and neither are those who are in it. It’s messy, in both good and not so good ways. So it may often require apologies, especially when it’s new and people are just getting to know each other. It’s easy to unintentionally step on toes, prod sore spots and the like then, mostly because you don’t know they exist, or where they are.

So, yes, apology is an integral part of relationship and trust-building…and not just in love relationships of course. Friends, co-workers, other family…anyone you wrong, unintentionally or otherwise.

You’d think with as much as we can screw up and need to apologize that we’d be better at it (all that practice and whatnot), but sadly, the art of the genuine apology is not one at which many people excel in my experience (myself vigorously included!). Not surprisingly, there are a lot of articles out there about doing it appropriately. I read a lot of them, like this one, and here are some interesting things I learned from the experts:

Fun Facts About Apologizing

  1. Why don’t we apologize? Ego. We want to retain the idealized version of our self because to admit we’re less than that makes us feel like crap about ourselves.
  2. Why should we apologize? Happiness. When we don’t apologize we poison our relationships. It’s not like we’re faking anyone out if we don’t acknowledge when we screw up.  So if we don’t apologize, the person we wronged holds a little piece of that in them until/unless we say we’re sorry.  (Unless they’ve reached a high level of enlightenment.)
  3. How can we make it hurt us less? Affirmations. You’re not a bad person, but you can do bad things. Think of all the things about you that are good, and then buck up. Doing a real apology is one of those good things. Go for it.
  4. Do we actually have to say the words? Yep. I’m sorry and I was wrong.  No, showing up a few hours later with a dozen roses is not an equivalent. (But it might be a nice bonus.) Turns out we have to make ourselves vulnerable to be believable. Who knew?

Bad Apologies

According to blogger Melissa Dahl, these are real don’ts of the art of apology.

1. Justifying your words or behavior.

2. Blaming the victim.

3. Making excuses.

4. Minimizing the consequences. (It was just a joke!)

A Real Apology

First off, I'm sorry but... isn't an apology. It's a defense disguised as an apology. Click To Tweet  Also, this alternative also doesn’t work: I’m sorry you’re angry… or I’m sorry you think I was wrong… Really, dood? You call that apologizing??  If you’re going to do it, do it right.

Here are some tips from the experts:

  1. Say you’re sorry, and then zip it.  It’s really hard to just say I’m sorry and not add the defensive qualifiers.
  2. Acknowledge. Say you know you were wrong.  Don’t blame it on anyone or anything else, especially not your victim!
  3. Repair. Explain what you’re going to do to make it right. Make a commitment to change whatever behavior led up to the error, especially if it’s something that’s been repeated.
  4. Listen. Listening is an important part of the apology process. Seek first to understand; not to be understood say the wise ones, but we always want to do the latter first. Why do courts make violent criminals listen to the stories of their victims’ survivors? Because part of apology means you need to understand the full impact of your actions on those you wronged. Ask for them to explain how you hurt them so you can ensure it won’t happen again. You may think you know, but don’t assume. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the inner workings of this person.  It might even spark a conversation that leads to even greater closeness.
  5. Ask for forgiveness. You may not get it, and you have to be okay with that, but you should ask. It represents an opportunity for closure to both of you can move on peacefully. It may only be acceptance of the apology, and that’s okay too. But forgiveness is good for both you and the person you hurt.


Making Amends

This form of wholehearted, thoughtful and voluntary apology is also called making amends in some circles.  I like that phrase because I sew, and the process of mending to bring torn pieces back together is a powerful analogy to me. Healing a rift, bridging a chasm–whatever metaphor works for you, that’s the purpose of an apology to begin with.

Find what works for you and the next time you screw up, own up. Just another simple, free way to make your world, and the worlds of those around you, better.