This post is in no way trying to say I'm an expert on this subject-- just ask my husband! In our almost 9 years of marriage we've had our fair share of arguments, and it is through trial and error that I have learned how to be better at sincerely apologizing. I'm still learning how to follow some basic steps to offering a sincere apology, which include:
1. Taking responsibility and owning up to the offense
2. Choosing the right time and setting to apologize
3. Offering a sincere "I'm Sorry" (without lame excuses, blame-shifting, or turning the focus onto yourself)
4. Making amends (taking action to set things right)
5. Asking for forgiveness.
6. Accepting the outcome and not repeating the offense.
I think that sometimes we learn valuable lessons about ourselves through the actions of other people's mistakes. Recently I had someone hurt my feelings who I don't know very well. It was an elderly woman at my church who was criticizing the way I was parenting my children. She not only hurt my feelings deeply the first time, but when she came to apologize, it was made even worse by the way she apologized.
I walked away from that situation realizing that, well, some people are just going to be difficult no matter what, but more importantly I realized that knowing how to offer a sincere apology is a valuable tool in keeping happy relationships. This is something I truly want to be better at. I don't want to be 80 years old and still struggling with the non-apology-apology that does the opposite of rectifying the problem. I also want to be more sincere and heartfelt with my husband when apologizing. I don't want "I'm sorry" to become a meaningless phrase in our home used to quickly cover up our stupid mistakes. I want our children to learn that "I'm sorry" can have a deep emotional impact on the way we feel towards and communicate with each other.
I did some google searching on the Internet this week about apologies. My search words included: "How to say I'm sorry", "offering a sincere apology", "how NOT to apologize" and "showing remorse." I've never done this before and was surprised to find that there are hundreds of etiquette websites dedicated to teaching people how to offer sincere apologies. Whether you've offended someone in business, in a personal love relationship, in a friendship, while in a volunteer position, or someone in your own family, there is a website out there dedicated to teaching you how to apologize! I had a lot of fun reading what they had to say and would like to offer a synopsis of my findings-- (If only to teach myself how to be a better apologize-er.)
STEP 1-Taking responsibility
First I learned that knowing what an apology is, is the first step to apologizing. According to Dictionary.com, an a·pol·o·gy is a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.
The next first step to rectifying the problem is to take responsibility for your actions and own up to the fact that you've hurt someones feelings. You have to do this regardless of what they've done wrong, or how stupid and illogical you think they are being. At this point an apology is not about you, it's about making them feel better and fixing the relationship. This is definitely the hardest part and why apologizing is very difficult for a lot of people.
STEP 2-The right time and place
Once you've swallowed your pride and owned up to your need to apologize, you need to choose when and how to appropriately apologize. Most websites say that a written apology is okay, as long as that's how you usually interact with that person. Rarely is it good etiquette to send an email or written note to someone that you normally communicate with in person. For instance, If the person is in the other room from you, or on the other side of the office, the appropriate apology would include the kind with eye contact and body language that shows honest remorse. A hug or sincere pat on the shoulder along with loving eye contact goes a long way. Choosing to write a note can be considered a shallow way to say I'm sorry, and may cause more resentment in the long run. Also, apologizing right away is better than waiting weeks or months or years to do it..
STEP 3- or How NOT to apologize:
Saying the simple words, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" can have a meaningful impact by themselves without piling on the lame excuses. It's okay to offer a simple excuse like, "I'm sorry I've been lashing out at you lately, my hemorrhoids have been killing me and the pain has made me grumpier than normal." Because the focus is still on helping the other person feel better.
It's not okay to say your sorry then shift the focus onto yourself so that the person your apologizing to is forced to relinquish their own hurt feelings and then feel sorry for you. Such as" "I'm sorry I've been lashing out at you lately, my hemorrhoids have been killing me and the pain has made me grumpier than normal, and you just don't understand how hard this is. The burden I carry is enormous and I need some compassion sometimes, too. But anyways, I'm sorry."
It's also not okay to give a sincere apology then in the next sentence tell the person all the rotten things they've done to screw up. "I'm sorry I lashed out at you, but your mere presence make my hemorrhoids flare up." Or, "I'm sorry I lashed out at you, but hey, remember when you hurt my feelings 6 years ago?"
The "but" disqualifies any apology that could have ever existed and erases any effort on your part to be sincere.
The last way to NOT apologize is to shift the blame to the other person while you are apologizing by using the word if, as in saying,"I'm sorry IF I offended you," or "I'm sorry IF you felt my words were unkind." All you are saying here is that they shouldn't really feel hurt because it's their fault for taking offense in the first place. This is not an apology.
STEP 4-Making amends
I'd say that this is a pretty easy one to understand. Offering a solution to rectify the problem and how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future is a great step to being sincerely sorry, such as asking,"What can I do to make things better?" or "I'm so sorry my hemorrhoids have been making me grumpy! Starting tomorrow I'm going to start taking Preparation-H and will make a point to stay away if I'm feeling like a big fat grump." (These are hypothetical examples, by the way.)
STEP 5-Asking for Forgiveness
This step is not always favored because after all, it is up to the other person if they choose to forgive you or not, and asking can sometimes come off as too aggressive. Most websites I read said that asking for forgiveness is sometimes okay, but don't expect that you'll be forgiven immediately, or at all. Also, don't be angry if the offended person chooses not to forgive you. Forgiveness is something that is earned and may time time to develop. If you ask for forgiveness, patiently and quietly wait for an answer. If one comes, good. If not, thank them for hearing you out then leave the door open if they want to come talk with you another time. Don't give them reasons why they should forgive you or why you deserve it. This is not an apology.
STEP 6- Never again.
I always remind my children that saying sorry means that you'll never do it again. Sorry is not only a word that can help fix feelings, it's also an action word. When you say sorry for something you try your darned hardest to learn from your mistake and not repeat the offense. This is something that my 3 year old is learning right now. He is going through a phase at the moment where he walks right up to his older brother and hits him, then immediately says sorry in a sad, pitiful tone of voice. It's obvious that he isn't really sorry and it bugs my 7 yr old to no end! Teaching him the true meaning of sorry has taught me to try and be more sincere with my own apologies to my husband when we are having a disagreement. He can tell when I am not being sincere, as well, and it bugs him to no end. (I'm sorry if you were offended by my words, but you are being too defensive and I'm sorry if you took it the wrong way but you should know that I'm hormonal right now!)
I don't want to cause contention in my relationship because I can't be big enough to offer a sincere apology to my spouse. The steps are right there, plain and simple. They are logical, sensible, and can fit most any situation where a sincere apology is warranted. I am going to refer to this post often when I need a reminder on how to apologize!
Sometimes I really wonder what we can learn from our bad experiences with other people. In this instance I am grateful to that elderly woman who criticized my parenting because she made me become more aware of my own weaknesses and how I can fix them. Her apology was a non-apology; the kind where she offered an apology then added all sorts of buts, ifs and accusations towards why she was right and I was wrong. This is not an apology. Furthermore, I think she deserves a Thank You note for making me more aware of my faults. I'm sure there's a website out there somewhere on how to write one...