The Art of the Apology
Making an Apology
- Be Sincere: Only apologize if you really mean it, if you are sincerely sorry for what you did. An insincere apology will only lead to further disingenuous interaction and dishonesty. Is that really what you want to bring to your relationship?
- Be Calm: If you are still feeling resentful, defensive, or otherwise upset, wait until you feel calmer and more able to engage in honest, constructive conversation about whatever happened. Otherwise, the apology is likely to come out in a way unlikely to be helpful, and might possibly just make things worse. If possible, go off on your own somewhere until you are able to handle the situation calmly.
- Clear Up Confusion: If you actually don't understand what happened and just have a vague feeling that an apology is required because the other person is mad, don't just apologize to get it over with. Again, this just fosters a relationship of miscommunication. Instead, acknowledge that you are confused, that you want to understand, and then ask respectful questions about the other person's feelings. For example:
- I'm sorry I upset you so much. I'm not sure exactly what I did wrong, but I really want to understand so I can avoid doing it again. Will you help me?
- Be Specific and Don't Exaggerate: Avoid hyperbole, exaggeration, self-pity, and vagueness. Instead, try to focus on a realistic and specific approximation of what you actually did wrong. Exaggerations and vague generalizations put the other person in the position of defending you instead of accepting an apology, which isn't fair to them. It's a way of (consciously or unconsciously) weaseling out of actually taking responsibility for your actions. For example:
- I'm sorry I was such a pain in the ass. (self-pitying exaggeration)
- I'm sorry I yelled at you. (better)
- I'm sorry I ruined our whole day. (vague exaggeration)
- I'm sorry I lost my temper in front of your friends. (better)
- I'm sorry. I just suck at this stuff. (vague self-pity)
- I'm sorry I wasn't communicating with you very well about how I was feeling. (better)
- I'm sorry I can't do anything right. (self-pitying, vague exaggeration)
- I'm sorry I ruined your shirt by drying it on "Hot". (better)
Note: I personally tend to fall into exaggerated self-pity apologies when I'm not watching myself and being careful to be honest and specific. I start beating myself up, blowing things out of proportion, and by the time I go to apologize, I feel like Hitler and Bill Gates rolled up into one. I grovel and whine such that I usurp the roll of injured party. Bad me!
- Take Responsibility: Talk about what YOU did, instead of adding on any qualifiers that blame the other person. Keep the apology itself as brief as possible, remaining focused on your own behavior. Unless absolutely necessary, do not quality your apology with references to the other person's behavior. For example:
- I'm sorry that I snapped at you. (good)
- I'm sorry I snapped at you because you were talking so much. (not so good)
- I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you. (good)
- I'm sorry I was being impatient with you when you were being so indecisive. (not so good)
- I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up. (good))
- I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter, but you shouldn't have startled me like that. (not so good)
- Don't Take TOO Much Responsibility: On the other hand, if you take too much responsibility ("It's all my fault!"), then you start either (A) leaning toward the self-pity situation that pressures the other person to comfort you or (B) fostering an unhealthy relationship in which the other person has no need to take responsibility for anything. In most relationship problems, both people played a role, and so it is unlikely that you did everything all by your lonesome. Everything in the world is not your fault ... you just need to figure out which things are, and only apologize for those.
- Invite Discussion: After your brief, specific, sincere apology, open up the conversation so that you have an opportunity to truly clear up the problem through discussion of what happened. Still stay focused on your own behavior as much as possible, so that your apology doesn't seem like an attack. For example:
- I'm sorry I snapped at you. I was getting impatient and probably wasn't listening as well as I could. What was it you were trying to tell me?
- I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you. I know you sometimes have trouble making decisions; was that what was going on tonight?
- I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you tonight. I wonder if there's some compromise we could reach that would allow me to help you when you have trouble making decisions.
- I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up. Did you feel like I was being irresponsible, or was it something else?
Accepting an Apology
- Acknowledge the Apology: In the past, whenever I apologized to my husband Shannon, he had one stock response:
K: I'm sorry I threw that Carcassonne tile. It was childish of me.No matter how carefully I crafted my apologies, they were met with an abrupt response of either "Yep" or "Yeah" ... both of which, to me, felt like my wrongdoing was being acknowledged, but communication was being cut off without any real acknowledgment of what I'd just said. It was like apologizing to a brick wall.
On the other hand, from what I have seen in the world, the most common response to an apology is something along the lines of "That's okay". Well, often, this response is a lie. Whatever the person did isn't okay, and you saying that it is doesn't help anyone. When it comes to apologies and responses to them, there are no good stock answers you can just trot out whenever necessary, because both should be tailored to the specific situation for optimal communication and benefit. Don't ignore the apology, and don't brush it off. If you are still angry, ask to continue the discussion after an hour (or whatever period of time seems best). Wait until you can listen calmly and respond constructively.
When someone makes an apology, the most constructive response is one that addresses the actual content of the apology. As with the apology itself, the response should be sincere, calm, and specific. For example:
- A: I'm sorry that I snapped at you.
R: It really hurt my feelings. Why were you so upset?
- A: I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you.
R: I know I was being indecisive. It seemed like you were getting really frustrated with me.
- A: I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up.
R: I understand you were busy, but I just want us each to do our own share of the cleaning.
- A: I'm sorry that I snapped at you.
- Encourage Conversation: Ask questions. Invite communication. Say and ask things that encourage the other person to tell you how they were feeling, why they behaved as they did, how you might both understand each other better in the future. Avoid comments that cut off discussion.
- Yeah, well, you always do things like this.
- I wish you'd stop always trying to make it all about you.
- Fine. I forgive you.