“I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” (How to Apologize)

“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”
Tryon Edwards


To build on last week’s post on “How to Fight a Good Fight in a Relationship”, it might come in handy for us to review some best practices for the art of the apology. Apologies are simple in theory but can end up being difficult in practice. I’ve certainly botched my share of apologies over the years. Usually this was due to my peacemaking nature. My desire to avoid conflict in my younger days resulted in making apologies for the weather. I would apologize even when I didn’t think that I did anything wrong and had no intention of changing my behavior in the future. I had not yet internalized this lesson: When we don’t really feel sorry or don’t feel that we share any responsibility for what happened, then our apology will fall flat.

People are looking for sincerity in an apology, and different people have different ideas about what a “sincere apology” looks like. What follows are some key points taken from Gary Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas’s book, The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships.

To cover all of the bases, a good apology boils down to a few simple steps and one important caveat. We’ll start with the caveat. You must truly feel sorry, and you must feel that your actions or words played a role in the situation. If these conditions are not true, then hold off on your apology. You’re not ready to apologize yet. If, after some genuine reflection, you truly believe that you are innocent, then you may first need to practice your constructive confrontation and nonviolent communication skills. However, if you agree with the caveat’s conditions, then follow these four simple steps:

Step 1: Express regret, accept responsibility, and initiate restitution. While that might sound tough, it’s actually very simple. Say each of the following sentences to the person you hurt: “I am sorry”; “It’s my fault” or “I was wrong”; “What can I do to make it better?”. Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Step 2: Listen. Listen to the response, and thoughtfully consider what is said. Reflect on the requested amends, determine if you are willing and able to follow through on the requested amends, and take legitimate steps to prevent it from happening again.

Step 3: Verbalize your intended amends and request forgiveness. Okay, now it’s time for you to speak again. Thank the person for sharing his or her feedback with you. Verbalize what you intend to do to make amends and prevent it from happening again. Then request—not demand—forgiveness. This goes something like, “Will you please forgive me?”

Step 4: Take action. Now it’s time to follow through on what you said you would do to make amends. You may not be able to address the issues right away, and you may continue to slip up. However, the important part is to make it clear that you are taking concrete steps to improve the situation, and you are serious about it. If you apologize but don’t do anything to change your future behavior, then all of your efforts in Steps 1 through 3 may be wasted.

Different people place greater value on different steps of the apology. Some people really want to hear the other person ask for forgiveness before they consider an apology to be genuine and sincere; others are more interested in the “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” part of the apology. There is a large group of people who are much more interested in action, not words. Many people want to see each step take place. That’s why it’s best to go through all four steps to ensure that your apology will be interpreted as genuine and sincere.

That’s it … apology complete! If you make a genuine effort to go through each of these four steps, then chances are high that you’ll be forgiven, although it might take a long time in some cases. In the unfortunate cases where the other person refuses to forgive you—despite your honest attempts to apologize and make amends— then you need to move on while doing your best not to repeat the offense.

With experience, you’ll get better at identifying when your actions might have hurt others. You’ll be able to more quickly identify and acknowledge your role in something that went wrong. This awareness shortens the gap between your action and your apology and makes it much easier to address.

In some cases, you may catch yourself as soon as the words leave your mouth. When you call it out on the spot, you may prevent it from becoming a big issue and may even be able to laugh about it with the person you offended. As the gap in time increases between your action and your apology, you give resentment and anger time to fester. It’s good practice to apologize as soon as you are aware of a wrong that you have done.

In situations where there are mutual feelings of bitterness or resentment, consider the following words from Lao-Tzu: “Someone must risk returning injury with kindness, or hostility will never turn to goodwill.”

In Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao, he shares the previous quote from Lao-Tzu, along with the following words to consider: “As the storm of a quarrel subsides, you must find a way to disregard your ego’s need to be right. It’s time to extend kindness by letting go of your anger. It’s over, so offer forgiveness to yourself and the other person and encourage resentment to dissipate. Be the one seeking a way to give, rather than the one looking for something to get.” At the termination of any argument or dispute, choose to end on love, no matter what.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!