Not all apologies are created equal. We explore the intricacies of saying “sorry” to help you apologise meaningfully when you encounter conflict with a partner, friend or colleague.
While apologies seem straightforward, they can actually be quite complex. We complicate saying sorry by adding caveats, shifting the blame, deflecting from what happened, or making the apology tokenistic.
So, what constitutes a quality apology in the context of our relationships?
Apologies can be difficult to make
People in power are often reluctant to apologise in case it leaves them open to litigation, as they might be taken as admissions of guilt. But we can also find it hard to make apologies as individuals.
We may feel defensive, wronged, or too insecure to admit we were wrong. Yet often, when someone is upset, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing or hurtful behaviour is all that the other person wants from us.
It’s when we deny someone’s feelings or experiences that we can compound their hurt, fuel their sense of injustice and lead to repetitive attempts for them to be heard. It can even be a form of gaslighting if someone’s concerns are continually dismissed when they try to raise them with you.
When an apology falls flat
Sometimes we’ll receive an apology which initially seems genuine, but afterwards we notice that the issue still feels unresolved for reasons we can’t quite articulate.
It may be hard to forgive for a whole host of reasons – perhaps you’ve lost trust in apologies because of your history with the person, the relationship or untrustworthy people in the past. Or it could be that the apology didn’t tick all the boxes for a heartfelt attempt at repairing what happened.
Is there a wrong way to apologise?
There are many ways to deliver an apology that falls short of giving the recipient the acknowledgement they deserve. Have you heard – or given – any of these types of apologies before?
- The ‘it’s your problem’ – “I am sorry you felt that” or “I’m sorry you took it that way.”
- The ‘yes, but’ – “I am very sorry, but… [this is why the behaviour was justified]”
- The justification – “I acknowledge you were hurt. I did it because…”
- The table-turner – “Sorry that what I did was hurtful. But now let’s talk about all those times you’ve done it to me.”
- The ‘no one’s to blame’ – “I am sorry that this thing happened,” rather than “I am sorry I did this thing.”
- The deflection – “I’m sorry, but I was really tired/unwell/drunk when it happened. It wasn’t really me.”
- The ‘minimise and blame’ – “You’re too sensitive. I was only kidding – don’t take it so seriously.”
- The ‘indignant and reluctant’ – “Obviously I regret what happened.”
What qualifies as a good apology?
An apology can play a key role in forgiveness. When you’re looking for an apology, you’re seeking acknowledgement of your experience, recognition that something has gone wrong, and accountability for the wrongdoing. It needs to convey genuine understanding and regret about what occurred.
Let’s look at the components of a good apology.
1. Taking accountability
This is critical. Without an “I” right up front, there is already a deflection, and the apology lacks weight – “I made a mistake, and it harmed you. I’m sorry.”
2. Letting the other person feel heard
Give the person you’ve hurt a chance to explain the impact your behaviour had on them. Without a chance to explain the impact of the wrongdoing, it can be hard to believe that the other person really gets it.
3. Listening deeply
While the other person explains how they feel, engage in deep listening so you can offer a considered apology in response.
In Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry Speech” to the Stolen Generation in 2008, he detailed many components of abuse and suffering, and said sorry for each one. The repetition of the apology provided depth and power to it. He didn’t package history and suffering into one and give an all-encompassing ‘sorry’ – he listened to and acknowledged all the ways the Stolen Generation had been wronged.
4. Keeping it simple
Once you’ve apologised, don’t add anything, don’t start the argument up again and don’t justify your behaviour – just leave it alone.
If you have other issues or feel like you need an apology too, try and make that a separate matter so you’re resolving one issue at a time. It might happen in the same conversation but, by moving into too many new subjects, you could wipe out the impact of the apology altogether.
5. Learning and growing
In relationships, we must learn from our behaviour. Doing the same hurtful thing over and over and delivering a quick-fix apology is not going to work.
As part of your apology, work out what you intend to do differently in the future, so this apology can be part of drawing a line in the sand and then be sure to live up to your words.
6. Moving forward
Some things may be unforgivable, including abuse, violence, and childhood trauma. An apology is not about wiping the slate clean.
It is about doing the right thing in relation to others who might have suffered at our hand, deliberately or accidentally, because that is part of being a decent and responsible person. Giving an apology doesn’t mean you are owed anything in return – forgiveness is earnt.
Often though, being in receipt of an apology that offers recognition, accountability and regret is powerful and can be moving. It can release the anger and hurt and open a pathway for things to improve.
What to do when an apology isn’t enough
If your apology was made in good faith and was a proportionate response to the mistake you made, being endlessly punished for it can lead to further relationship problems.
Hurts that remain stuck, or where apologies have been made but were dismissed or felt insufficient, may require professional assistance to navigate.