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How To Really Apologize — And Why Saying Sorry Is Important

by : Experts share how to be the most effective when making amends…


Apologies are a hot topic. Recently, we’ve seen public atonements from the likes of Chrissy Teigen and Ken Jennings following insensitive tweets, and less-apologetic approaches from Rachel Hollis and DaBaby that caused uproar. We’ve witnessed mea culpas for behavior displayed by reality-show contestants off-air, and an apology plays a starring role in The Chair, a popular new Netflix show that’s “about whether you are one of those men who, when something like this happens, thinks he can dust himself off and just walk away without any f–king sense of consequence.”

But many apologies in the public eye are ineffective or incomplete because the person’s first reaction is to skirt responsibility instead of truly admitting wrong. “Don’t apologize as a way to shut down the conversation and wipe the slate clean. That’s a shortcut that won’t work,” writes Cindy Frantz, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, in an email interview. Apologies won’t work if they lack genuine sincerity.

That is — if one is even given at all.

rachel hollis
Rachel Hollis (L) and Kiah Twisselman (R) on The Kelly Clarkson Show

“Vulnerability and fear, I think, are what keep people from acknowledging mistakes. Shame can be a factor too, and maybe a sense of ‘I want to be a good person, and good people don’t make mistakes and have to apologize.’ Well, everybody makes mistakes. Apologies should be part of our normal, everyday language,” says Dr. Cedar Barstow, the founder and executive director of the Right Use of Power Institute and the author of Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics.

We’ve all experienced both good and bad apologies up close in our own relationships too.

Guy Winch, a psychologist and cohost of the Dear Therapists podcast, said in an email interview that there is a big gap between what an apology is supposed to sound like and how most people apologize. “The focus of any apology should be on the harm experienced by the offended party, not on the apologizer justifying their actions,” he says.

Effective apologies can repair a relationship that would otherwise fade or end. When we put aside feelings of shame in order to take responsibility and make things right with someone we love or care about, we — and our relationships — are better for it.

Apologies are powerful. They bring us together. They are important because without them relationships can’t be repaired.

“Admitting wrongdoing is a form of vulnerability, and vulnerability is an essential part of building a close relationship,” Frantz says. “So, while we should never intentionally harm our relationship partners, a transgression has the potential to be an opportunity for building greater understanding and connection.”

How to apologize meaningfully

The sooner, the better

It’s important to apologize as close to the problematic event as possible, but apologies given years later can still be effective if they’re executed well. “It’s never too late to try to mend a rupture with someone you care about, especially if you feel guilty for it over time,” Winch says.

So, what does an effective, proper apology consist of, and where can we begin?

Start with a clear “I’m sorry” statement

Experts say the phrase “I’m sorry” isn’t effective on its own, but that these two words in tandem are a powerful, necessary place to begin.

Frantz tells us that the essence of a true apology is “conveying to the victim that their injury has been recognized and acknowledged, that the perpetrator understands what they did wrong, and pledges it won’t happen again. The words ‘I’m sorry’ are just a part of conveying that message. The perpetrator needs to reaffirm the value and worth of the victim, and the importance of the relationship going forward.” Saying “I’m sorry” is just one piece of the apology puzzle. It’s the launching point that helps the offended party process what the person is saying as a true apology.

Rather than saying, “I’m sorry that you are hurt,” which claims no ownership in the hurt caused, the offender can express full compassion by saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you by doing …” followed by acknowledging the action brought to their attention.

Take responsibility

Apologies are about impact not intention. It’s important to take ownership of the harm you’ve caused someone else — whether it was intentional or not.

John Kador, the author of Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, says in his book to “take full responsibility for your offense without being defensive, making excuses, offering long explanations, or blaming anyone else.”

Focus on the harm you did, not on the reason behind it. Always apologize first, and then — if asked — share the thoughts or intentions behind your original actions. A proper apology, Dr. Barstow says, focuses on the “I” (never “we were both wrong”) and clearly outlines comprehension of the specific act that brought about the emotional damage. As Kador says in his aforementioned book, “The injured person needs to know that you understand your offense and that you’re apologizing for the right thing, with no ifs or buts.”

Express true regret or remorse

Apologies aren’t about being obedient; they’re about expressing deep sorrow for the harm you’ve caused, from your heart. Winch calls it “an empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.” Don’t breeze past their hurt or pain; honor it.

It’s important to truly listen to the pain the person is sharing, process it, and empathize with it. An apology stemming from compassion is important. “You can feel it in your body,” Dr. Barstow says of genuine apologies.

“It’s your intention [that matters] and whether you’re coming from your heart and you really do feel regret for some harm you’ve caused. That’s the most important thing,” Dr. Barstow says.

sticky note with sorry

To effectively apologize you must take sincere responsibility for your actions.


Articulate your desire for repair

“You want to tell the person what you’re doing to repair this … so that you can stay in a relationship rather than splitting apart, which is what inevitably happens with no apology at all,” Dr. Barstow says.

In his book, Kador says that “Restitution should be aimed at a repair that goes one step beyond the actual harm done. Your offer [to reconcile] shows respect and a deep level of willingness to take responsibility for the repair.”

Conveying your wish to repair the relationship by making things right is a wonderful way to end an apology. Dr. Barstow suggests saying, “This is what I’m doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” You can also communicate what you’ve learned, how you’ve changed, and your commitment to how things will be different in the future, as Kador offers in his book.

An apology is just the beginning

Dr. Barstow calls it a “repair process” for a reason: It truly is a process.

“Even when you offer an apology, you’re not in charge of whether it’s accepted or not,” she says. “Sometimes it seems to us an apology repair process can take days, weeks, months, hours — but you can do a lot in 10 minutes if you come from your heart and really genuinely want to get back in a relationship with the person.”

If someone doesn’t accept your apology right away, a good question to ask is “Is there anything missing from my apology?” or “Is there anything else you need for us to be able to reconnect?” From there, give the person space and time to digest your apology and desire for mending if they need it. Let them know that you are there when they are ready to talk.

Even our richest relationships need repair from time to time — because we’re human and can slip up and be inconsiderate. But with the right apology, we can ensure they remain healthy, joyous, and long-lasting.

Source: Shondaland


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