As toddlers, we’re told to “just say you’re sorry.” As adults, we quickly learn that isn’t true.
Last week, a client told me that after a three-week stint of tension and arguments, her husband finally apologized for racking up credit card debt without telling her and apologized.
She promptly told him where to go and how to get there.
When talking about her reaction she explained:
I just couldn’t be bothered. He was so monotone and flat. Sure, he said the words but there was no emotion behind his words, no sense of any real remorse. He didn’t seem to get that I felt tricked, betrayed, and lied to. He just thought it was the same old argument about money
As toddlers, the repeated message is to say “you’re sorry.” As kids, we learn to parrot this phrase on cue whenever we make a mistake and we’re led to believe that if we just say we’re sorry that everything will be ok in the end. As adults, we learn quickly that just isn’t true.
Apologizing and making amends is not as simple as just saying the words. If you’ve ever apologized and then found yourself trying to figure out why you are still in conflict, chances are that your apology missed the mark:
You Sang the Same Song on a Different Day.
Apologies quickly lose their worth when they aren’t quickly followed by a change in behavior. If you’re apologizing for the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t matter how thoughtfully you apologize. No one is going to believe you until they see a change in you.
Thoughtful apologies should include a statement of intent: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I spoke too quickly and my sarcasm ran away with me. I want to be more careful about what I joke about.”
Your apologies will have more credibility when you acknowledge and say out loud that you recognize what needs to change.
The Intensity of Your Apology Didn’t Match the Intensity of Your Actions.
That moment when you realize you really messed up can be awful, especially when it wasn’t your intent to be hurtful or disrespectful. It’s tempting to want to rush to get the whole thing over with and offer a speedy apology.
However, the size of your apology should match or exceed the size of your mistake. You can’t apologize for yelling and swearing with the same casual air you offer when you bump into someone. If you really hurt someone, you have to really apologize!
- Be mindful of your body language, posture, word choice and word tone. You want to express empathy and concern.
- State clearly what you know your mistake to be
- Offer some understanding as to why you know it was hurtful or how the other person must have felt or been affected
- Without blaming the injured party, offer some explanation or insight as to what was going on for you when the mistake happened. What went wrong? What had you been thinking or feeling at the time.
- Offer the person an opportunity to share anything they might want to about how they were affected by what happened.
You Apologized Too Soon.
I struggle the most with this one. If I’ve acted out, been impulsive, or said something hurtful, I typically want to take it back and swallow my words immediately. I’ve been known to trip over myself offering hurried apologies in an effort to fix the damage as soon as possible. Although well-intentioned on my part, that’s really more about me soothing myself from my guilt than by taking care of the other person.
Sometimes people need to stay mad for a while. They can’t downshift from hurt to forgiveness in 60 seconds.
Try checking in with the person before launching in to your apology.“I feel pretty lousy about what I just said. Can we talk about it?”
If the other person sees that you are respecting their experience by allowing them to have their reaction, they’re more likely to listen more openly when they’re ready.
You Came to the Conversation With Armor On.
It’s so hard not to enter these tough talks defensively.
You’re really putting yourself out there by apologizing and it’s not unheard of that an injured party will try to make themselves feel better by making you feel worse. Of course you want to protect yourself from the sting that could come if your apology were rejected or from another round of conflict.
However, the only way that apologies work to clear the air is if they are done openly. It’s vulnerable to apologize but if you try to avoid vulnerability, the other person will sense that and interpret you to again be caring more about yourself than them.
It Really is Too Little Too Late
Sometimes, you just don’t show up in time. If you’re going around and round on the same issue or are always fighting about the same thing, sometimes the other person is just done. If you’re managing a chronic problem with someone, it helps to acknowledge that you get that it’s chronic and how frustrating it must be to have the same conversation over and over again.
Sometimes, there will just be nothing you can do but by staying open, you’re keeping the door open for improved communication, understanding, and connection.
Need some help getting started? Here are 7 Sample Scripts for an Effective Apology.