How to apologise – and
make it a sincere one

Ever received an apology that left you feeling worse? That’s because not all apologies are created equal, and sometimes a simple ‘sorry’ doesn’t cut the mustard. We’ve explored the intricacies of apologising and forgiveness, to help you make amends the next time you experience conflict with a partner, friend or colleague.


In the last few months there’s been a great deal of discussion about Scott Morrison’s apology about Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine roll out. Did it go far enough? Was he really taking personal responsibility? Was the tone right? Did it seem sincere?

Apologies, while they seem straightforward, can actually be quite complex. Or rather, many of us tend to make them complex by adding caveats, shifting the blame, deflecting away from what’s actually happened to warrant the apology, or being tokenistic with our ‘sorries’.

But what does constitute a quality apology in the context of our relationships?

 

Apologies can be difficult to make

People in power are often reluctant to provide an apology in case it leaves them open to litigation. Lawyers will often argue against them, as they might be taken as admissions of guilt.

But as individuals, we can also find it hard to make apologies. We may feel defensive, or wronged ourselves, or too insecure to admit we were wrong. Yet often, when there is a relational injury, acknowledgment of wrongdoing or hurtful behaviour is often all that the other person wants from us.

It’s when we deny someone’s feelings or experience 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 crazy-making, or 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 can receive an apology which at a first glance appears seems genuine and comforting, and you can feel slightly mollified. However, for some reason afterwards, you’re still left feeling unresolved.

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.

But it could also be that the apology just didn’t tick all the boxes for a heartfelt attempt at repairing what happened.

 

Types of (less-then-ideal) apologies:

Have you heard (or given) any of these types of apologies before?

  • The ‘it’s your problem’ – “I am sorry you felt that / Im sorry you took it that way.”
  • The ‘yes, but’ – “I am very sorry but… (this is why the behaviour was ok /  you deserved it)”
  • 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-perpetrator’ – “I am sorry that this thing happened” – not “I am sorry I did this…”
  • 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 response – Only given reluctantly when asked to apologise: “Well of course 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 looking for 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. Speaking and being heard

Without a chance to explain the impact of the wrongdoing, it can be hard to believe that the other person really ‘gets it’. That’s one reason why victim impact statements in court are so powerful, as they bring alive the full magnitude of the crime and the suffering caused.

2. Deep listening

In Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry Speech” to the Stolen Generation, given in Parliament 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’. That would have seemed glib and superficial.

3. 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”. Full stop.

4. Simplicity

Don’t add anything. Don’t start the argument up again. Don’t justify. Just leave it alone. If you have other issues, or need an apology too, try and make that a separate matter, resolving one issue at a time. It might happen in the same conversation but moving into too many new subjects and you could wipe out the apology altogether.

5. Change

In relationships, we must learn from behaviour. Doing the same hurtful thing over and over and expecting an apology to tidy everything up 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. Then live up to your words.

6. Moving forward

Some things may be unforgiveable, for example 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. Equally, if you have apologised in good faith and that was a reasonable thing to do in the circumstances and for the size of mistake you made, being endlessly punished for it can also lead to further trouble between you.

Hurts that remain stuck, and where apologies have been made, dismissed or felt insufficient, may require professional assistance to navigate.

It is often the case though, that 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 up a pathway for things to be different.

Mistakes are part of being human. Mostly we all understand this, and are willing to move on and get back to being mutual problem solvers, whether that be discussing inequity in the home or even some aspects of social policy.

 


If you need to work on your apology and forgiveness skills, there are plenty of resources available to help you. Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communications group programs online throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about our upcoming Relationship Education Programs here. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.

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