In these days of uncertainty and confusion, many relationships have suffered. Reports of relational friction have risen globally.
Disagreements have escalated. Differences may be irritated.
Have you encountered this in your own circles? If so, you’re not alone.
What is the most valuable phrase you can hear when you’re stuck in an argument? I’m sorry?
Yes, possibly. No at other times.
In this article, we’re going to put that phrase, “I’m Sorry”, on the table, walk all around it, and look at why apologies may, or may not be valuable after a painful interaction.
We’ll ask some questions, such as:
What is an apology?
Why do we apologize?
When do we apologize?
How do we apologize – the best ways, and the worst?
Can the results be worth the effort?
Different Levels Of “I’m Sorry”
1) The Quick Fix: We’ve all experienced those awkward moments, such as when grocery shopping, you accidentally bang the shopping cart next to yours. Or, without meaning to, you talk overtop of someone who is already speaking. Often, these moments can be swiftly remedied with an immediate apology, and not much explanation required.
2) The Minor Mistake: This kind is applicable when an action has caused a misunderstanding. For example, if I see my favorite ‘nobody-better-touch-it’ flashlight sticking out of my husband’s pocket, he may apologize, and explain that he borrowed it to find a tool he dropped in the driveway last evening. If he states, for example, that he should have asked before he took it, but I wasn’t home, at least, now I know his reason. (True, he may need to apologize as well for not returning it sooner!)
3) Triggered Offenses And Woundings : These are a bit harder. If dealt with swiftly with a sincere apology, they can become very constructive in restoring a relationship. However, if ignored, they can fester and create some very unpleasant living conditions.
Some people feel that the best remedy is simply to ignore the problem and it will resolve on its own. Others minimize the damage they have caused, and feel that the offended person should just be able to “grow up and get on with life”.
Usually, this has the opposite effect by compounding and amplifying the problem. It can become quite a vicious cycle actually, and produce no good results. If you want to see a good outcome, you will need to practice the skill–and it is an acquired one – of a sincere apology.
If the intention to change is not there, the apology is of no true value.
First, What Is A True Apology?
A sincere apology is a three-step process:
1) It is an acknowledgement of the damage we have caused by our words, our attitudes or our actions.
2) It is shown by our readiness to repair that damage.
3) It is completed by our demonstration of changed behavior.
An apology is effective when the person we have offended recognizes it as sincere.
The effectiveness of an apology is not determined by the offender . It is regarded as valuable when:
1) The offended person understands that you have a true awareness of the problem,
2) They see that you have regret for any damage done,
3) They feel your genuine compassion for their suffering, and
4) They hear your willingness to do what it takes to restore peace, including not repeating the offense. This may require a stated plan. Remember, if the intention to change is not there, the apology is of no real value.
A true apology comes from a heart that wants to build a healthy relationship.
Shouldn’t A True Apology Be Easy To Give?
Well, if it were, the world would be a far less offended, wounded place.
Apologies do not come naturally to most of us. They are truly a skill, developed with time and practice.
To learn the skill of a genuine Apology, we first need to look carefully at our own reflex emotions under the stress of an uncomfortable interaction. Too often, we can become reactionary. We either jump in with a self-defense, excuse, or an off-loading blame. Or, worst of all, we want to prove that our way is the only answer. A sincere apology doesn’t work well with a “me first” mentality. It require us to humble ourselves, drop our pride, develop sincere respect, grow our compassion, think of others more than ourselves, and plan for a better future. It shows the difference between those who want to build a cooperative team, versus those who simply want others to comply with them.
In short, a heartfelt apology is a work of thought, effort and care.
It is an act of maturity.
A true apology can create one of the most powerful remedies ever – Hope.
Why Do We Apologize?
We may not see this at first, however, a true apology is very powerful. It builds hope, the most necessary part of a healing process.
When something distressing, disturbing or catastrophic happens, the negative effects are an unwelcome by-product. We struggle to recover, to normalize, to alleviate the suffering. And we hope that it will not happen again. It is much easier to recover when have reassurance that the problem will not continue.
Fights, offenses, wounds, and relational animosity can heal with amazing speed when we are offered a sincere apology, and clear actions are taken to not repeat the event.
So, we apologize to build hope, restore peace, create strong relationships, and build a healthy, winning team. A true apology is an act of love.
When Do We Apologize
As soon as we are aware that there is a problem, and as quickly as possible.
(There is a reason why the Bible says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your/their wrath.” Not only can relationships deteriorate quickly, but health issues can begin to arise due to the stress of unresolved issues, including high blood pressure, heart conditions, ulcers, psychological distresses, a myriad of diseases, anxiety, etc)
To Whom Do We Apologize?
This may seem self explanatory. To the person we’ve offended, of course! However, many times, the issue is taken elsewhere. Why? Because we don’t want to face a possible confrontation.
This is important enough to state again: Many times, we take our complaints, explanations and self-defenses elsewhere, because we don’t want to face a possible confrontation, or learn the skill of apologizing, or, worst of all, we don’t want to humble ourselves.
So, we discuss it with our friends, other family members, co-workers. We air the problem, from our perspective only, and hopefully get an opinion that supports us. Yet in the end, it will cause more damage and division if all we want is to get someone else on our side. We need to learn the extreme value of offering a sincere apology first to the one we have damaged.
Keys To An Apology That Fixes Your Relationships.
1) Start with an attitude of humility and a willingness to listen
2) Be ready to learn something about yourself.
3) Have a posture of openness. Face the other person. (Apologies tossed over the shoulder as one walks out of the room are rarely perceived as sincere.)
4) Offer a clear description of what you have done, and how you saw it affected the other person.
“Bob, when I made fun of your project, I realized afterwards that was a nasty move on my part. I was jealous because you did such an impressive job. I saw how hurt and angry you were when I spoke. After all the work you put into it, you didn’t need me putting you down.”
5) Remorse, coupled with a willingness to make good (where possible) shows sincerity.
“I see now that I do a lot of damage with my negativity, and I need to change this.”
6) Outline the steps of how you intend to not repeat the offensive action.
“I want to practice, every day, noticing and telling you all the positive things I see , and shut up with my critical attitude.”
7) A true apology does not demand forgiveness. Be patient with the process. Recognize that forgiveness is given more freely when others see lasting evidence of positive change.
“Apologies” That Destroy Restoration.
Have you ever witnessed or experienced “apologies” like these:
1) Being Dismissive or Vague:
“If I’ve ever done anything to hurt you…”
“That’s just the way I am.”
2) Not taking responsibility for their part, or waiting to see if the other person expresses relief:
“I said I was sorry. Can we get on with doing something else now?”
“Well, I might have said that, but you’ve done the same thing to me, you know…”
“You just didn’t understand me. Maybe that’s what you heard, but it’s not what I meant.”
These are usually perceived as insincere. The offender typically has no intent to truly change their behaviors.
3) Being Reactive: When a vague apology is offered, and the person wounded starts honestly opening up, describing their hurt, or telling about their pain, and the offender’s reaction is anger. “I said I was sorry. What more do you want?” “Sheesh, you’re not very forgiving!”
4) Blaming, Shaming, Demeaning:
“Well if you hadn’t ________, then I wouldn’t have ________.”
“If you weren’t so_______, I wouldn’t be treating you like this”.
“It wasn’t all that bad”…
How about this one, “You shouldn’t be so sensitive! You need to let this go.”
“You should toughen up. You’re too touchy about such a little thing.”
Or, “Nobody else I know would be hurt/would be offended at that!”
“You do that too, you know…”
“I was just having a bad day.”
6) Being Defensive
When one insists on telling their side of the story only or is not willing to hear both sides.
If either person will not acknowledge, or not take responsibility for their part in creating the conflict, insisting with words or actions that “It’s not my fault”.
When one dismisses or refutes the other’s side, then wonders why the argument keeps recurring
Either one seems unable to consider another perspective other than their own
Focus on Actions That Will build a team, rather than reactions That May Destroy It.
Unprepared Results Of An Apology (Or, “Well THAT Didn’t Go As Planned…”)
Sometimes the positive result you hope for doesn’t happen right away. Anger is a common reaction. Here is why: Often when the offendee has suppressed their anger and not been able to express it, your apology produces a result like removing the cork from a bottle of carbonated soda -quite eruptive!
We need to have the capacity to understand that this reaction may happen, and not get offended ourselves if it does. It’s actually a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate how genuine our apology is by not being reactive ourselves, and by allowing them to vent off their accumulated “steam”. How long they rant is a very telling indicator of how hurt they may be. Stay patient, stay compassionate, stay humble. Absorbing the pain of a reaction like this is very difficult at first. Yet, if you will focus on the hope you are building towards, rather than the reaction you may be feeling, you may see the relationship restored in almost miraculous ways.
A Few More Key “Ingredients” Of A Good Apology
Show that you truly want to understand the other person’s perspective.
Indicate that you are willing to hear how your actions may have hurt them. No defense on your part, no reactions, counter opinion, solutions or corrections are needed. It is simply the time to learn how your behaviors were perceived, and how they affected the other person.
Your introduction to the solution: Do not stonewall your possibility of success by a self defensive reaction, by going silent, giving the cold shoulder, changing the subject, or turning away. This only compounds the perception that you don’t care, or that you are being selfish. Be willing to address the subject in the following ways:
1) Observation – Notice the results of how you have hurt or offended them.
Words like, “I can see that I’ve really upset you. I’d like to understand how I can make it better,” can be very helpful. Listen carefully to their answer.
2) Recognize – Be able to understand and describe the damage. Listen for the other person to add additional information, or adjust what you have said. Be open to learn something about them, and yourself, through this process.
3) Humility – Be willing to hear, willing to repair where possible, and above all, willing to not repeat the same mistake. Be prepared and open to learn a better way.
4) Patience – A true apology may be a short, simple process, or it may take time for you to demonstrate your sincerity and regain trust. Don’t give up!
Can The Results Of An Effective Apology Really Be Worth The Effort?
If I told you that repaired relationships, closeness restored, friendly interactions, unified actions and working together again were possible, would you make the effort?
Your spouse, your family and friends are looking for sincere, healthy connections. We know that differences are bound to happen. It’s a part of growing and learning how to “do” relationships. However, the way we respond to a conflict, and the constructive choices we make in the midst of them, can most assuredly break that connection, or build a loving, joyful reunion, more strongly linked than ever.
If you want a great return, invest in learning the skills of an effective apology.
It is VERY well worth the effort!
Please send any thoughts or comments to email@example.com
I’m here to help.
Feel free to contact me with relational questions on this subject.
A helpful resource to stop fights quickly is my complimentary booklet, “Finding GOLD In the Gale – 3 Keys To Stop An Argument And Sustain A Marriage”.
You’ll find it on our website under the ‘Resources’ section:
Here is an additional article I recommend, by Dr. Gary Chapman: