Updated: Mar 8
I am a part of a business group. At one of our meetings, a prior visitor to the group came to apologize for a situation that occurred at the previous meeting. This person thought they were apologizing when they said, “I am sorry if I made anyone feel this way and I am sorry if I offended anyone.” They ended by saying “I don’t think this group is a good fit for me.”
This person thought they apologized. What the group felt was frustration and confusion.
When was the last time someone truly apologized to you for something they had done? How often have you heard: I am sorry you feel this way. I am sorry, but you provoked me. I am sorry if you think I hurt you.
These kinds of apologies don’t work, yet very few of us know how to truly apologize and make amends.
Why is apologizing so hard?
Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist well known for her work on human relationships, says it is because apologizing makes us vulnerable, and we have no control over how the other person will react. In her book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, she lays the groundwork for what a good apology should look like. In an interview for NPR’s Life Kit, she explains it like this:
“A good apology is when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making and without bringing up the other person's crime sheet. So that's a good apology.”
How do we do that? Here are the top 5 tips that Harriet Lerner shared on Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, that you can put in your toolbox for making a good apology:
1. Take the word BUT out of your vocabulary. When you say I am sorry, but you are automatically not taking responsibility for your actions and looking for someone or something else to blame.
2. Keep your response on your own action and take responsibility for your behavior.
3. Offer a way to make things right.
4. Don’t over-apologize. It keeps the focus on you rather than the other person.
5. Don’t ask the hurt party to do anything, not even forgive.
I know that I don’t remember all 5 tips during an argument or in a tense situation, but before I apologize, I take a moment to center myself and remind myself to be genuine (if I am not truly sorry, I won’t offer a good apology because it won’t be sincere), take responsibility, do not blame, and offer a way to make it right.
What tips would you offer for a good apology? What apologies have others offered you that really worked?