What to do when “sorry” seems to be the hardest word to say.
"Sorry" can be a hard word to say. It's another way of saying, "I got it wrong", "I messed up", "I'm not perfect". Admitting that to yourself can be hard, never mind putting it out there for other people to hear.
But you're human, which means that you will screw up at some point — at work, with your spouse, your parents, your kids, and your friends. So like it or not, the art of the apology is a life skill worth mastering.
Apologies are born of tricky situations with heightened emotions; you're feeling remorseful, even a little defensive. The person you're apologizing to is wounded. Perhaps they want to retreat completely and shut you out or they're on the offensive, with the desire to retaliate. It's not uncommon for a conversation to begin with an apology but end with even more raised voices, hurtful comments, or slammed doors.
To make sure you deliver your apology in the most effective way, without emotion taking over, you need a basic outline, or script, to ensure you stay on track.
An effective apology generally has four basic steps:
1. Express your remorse clearly.
Say "I'm sorry".
You'd be surprised at how many people falter at this first step: they forget to actually say the words, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize", which leaves the person on the other end wondering whether the apology was, in fact, an apology!
Be specific about what you're apologizing for.
You've probably been on the receiving end of a vague apology before. Perhaps your partner or your friend has hurt your feelings. They apologize and it's genuine to the extent that they really are sorry they've upset you but you can tell they've totally missed the point about why their actions were so hurtful in the first place.
So when it's your turn to make the apology, it's best to make sure you actually understand what you did wrong and let your spouse, friend, or colleague know that you're aware of exactly why you need to apologize. After all, if you know you messed up, but aren't sure how, then the chances are you'll mess up in exactly the same way at some point further down the line. And no one wants that to happen, least of all you.
Here's how you do that: start by apologizing for what you think is "the thing" by saying something like "I am really sorry for [specific things]. I want to check in to make sure I got it, so we can clear the air completely. Is there anything else that really hurt you/made you mad/etc. that I need to be aware of?"
By giving them the opportunity to make sure their needs are met by your apology, you'll avoid a boatload of trouble down the road, and be able to make sure that your apology is going to do what it needs to do.
Apologize without conditions.
An apology is not the time for excuses or blame shifting.
Sure, you may have been suffering stress or under the influence of one too many beers but hearing that isn't going to make the other person feel any better. You may have had some valid reasons for doing or saying what you did, but expressing them only serves to weaken your apology and minimize the other person's hurt. Starting an apology with "I'm sorry but…" rarely ends well.
Be fair to yourself.
Don't apologize for something that isn't your responsibility. The idea of an apology is to reduce resentment, and apologizing for something that genuinely wasn't your fault will only make you feel resentful.
Authenticity is the key to an effective apology so never apologize if you don't mean it. Unless you're an Oscar-level actor, it'll ring hollow and likely make the situation worse.
2. Admit responsibility.
A little empathy can go a long way. If you can show that you appreciate the effects of your words or actions on the other party, they will be reassured that it's unlikely to happen again and you'll be able to start rebuilding the trust in your relationship.
Make it clear what you're admitting responsibility for. If you have to apologize to multiple people, perhaps if you've messed up with your team at work, aim your apology to the team as a whole rather than the individuals. Each person will have a different take on the situation and it's far more useful to offer private time to each individual to suss out their particular issues.
Don't make assumptions.
Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes but be careful not to make too many assumptions about how they feel. Give them the chance to explain how things look from their side and listen to understand, not to reply.
3. Make amends.
Avoid the extremes of empty promises and grand gestures.
Don't rush into making amends; this is a step that requires careful consideration. Token gestures or empty promises come across as insincere and only increase the harm. Giving away too much is also to be avoided as you run the risk of appearing over the top or desperate. Keep things in proportion.
4. Promise it won't happen again.
This is a vital step if you want to have your apology accepted. Reassuring the other person or people that lessons have been learned and there won't be a repeat performance is the only way to move on and start rebuilding the trust you've lost.
It's vital that you honor any commitments you make during your apology so be realistic with any promises you offer up.
It's important to realize that even the most sincere, beautifully-delivered apology may fall on deaf ears. "Sorry" is a hard word to say, but for some people, it's equally hard to hear and finding forgiveness will take patience and effort on both sides. However, if you follow the steps above, you'll know that, at the very least, you've done your utmost to turn around a bad situation.
If your relationship is struggling to get past a trauma and "sorry" just isn't enough, please do get in touch. Sometimes an unbiased perspective is exactly what you need to be able to move forward in a positive way. Schedule a call with me here.