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  • Writer's pictureChristy Murdock

How (and when) to say you're sorry

Please. Thank you. I'm sorry.

As a child, these are probably the three phrases we're most frequently prompted to say. And they're fairly easy to understand, too:

  • Say please when you're asking for something.

  • Say thank you when you receive it.

  • Say I'm sorry when you've hurt someone or done something wrong.

As we grow up, however, these simple and polite elements of language become far more complicated — and harder to say.

  • Please can sound like begging and make you feel weak.

  • Thank you can be sarcastic or can make you feel like you owe someone something.

  • I'm sorry can be loaded, changing the whole dynamic of a relationship or even opening you up to potential liability.

Knowing how and when to apologize is crucial to healthy relationships. We've all known (or been) someone who can't apologize, no matter how wrong they are or how badly they feel about their behavior. Not only is it an unattractive trait, but it can truly break down a friendship or working relationship — sometimes beyond repair.

Why apologizing is so hard

Apologizing is difficult in many different contexts, from the personal to the professional. Here are just a few of the reasons:

Ego and pride

Implicit in an apology is an acceptance of responsibility and an acknowledgment of error. That can be difficult to swallow, especially if you think of yourself as hyper-competent. In addition, if you see the person you're apologizing to as somehow problematic or in the wrong, it can be hard to be the bigger person and apologize.

Fear of vulnerability

Apologizing makes you vulnerable, presenting you as the one who's in error and opening yourself up to the possibility that the other person won't accept your apology. In some cases, it leads to a larger conversation about your behavior that you may not be willing to hear or engage in.

Fear of consequences

From a professional standpoint, this is probably the biggest barrier to apologies. Because you're acknowledging and accepting responsibility for your actions, you may find yourself open to punishment or liability. An apology is a tacit acceptance of responsibility which can feel dangerous, especially when there are financial consequences to the behavior you're apologizing for.

If your actions have created a truly dangerous situation for you and others from a legal standpoint, you will need to talk to your broker and/or your attorney before apologizing. Keep in mind, however, that you should still consider some type of plan that would eventually allow you to apologize and accept responsibility for your part in the situation, since denial can have negative consequences on your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Cultural and gender expectations

In some cultures, an apology may be seen as resulting in a loss of status. That may make it very difficult to apologize to someone younger, someone from a different background, or someone who works for you. Similarly, men may find it more difficult to apologize than women, or may be unwilling to lose face by apologizing.

If you didn't hear people apologize in your household when you were growing up, it may be very difficult for you to learn to apologize. Similarly, if children were expected to apologize and grown-ups weren't, you may carry that attitude into your adult life.

What does a good apology look like?

A good apology is an acknowledgment that something you've done was hurtful or had negative consequences (intended or not). A good apology allows you to feel better and allows the wronged party to feel seen and heard.

When should you NOT apologize

Believe it or not, there are times when you shouldn't apologize. These include:

  • When you haven't accepted that you've done anything wrong. An apology at this point will come across as insincere and "going through the motions" and could make the situation worse.

  • When you're apologizing at the behest of and to cover for someone else and aren't really at fault.

  • When you apologize all the time for everything and your "I'm sorry" has ceased to mean anything.

  • When the other person is a bully and is forcing you to apologize as a way to manage their narcissism. If you're working for or with someone like this, you should consider whether bigger changes are needed.

How to apologize

Once you've decided that you want to apologize and that you're ready to apologize, here's how to make it count.

Engage with empathy

Your apology may sound empty if you haven't really entered into the other person's experience and attempted to see things from their perspective. Spend some time thinking about the situation and seeing it through their eyes. How did you act? How did you sound? What was the result for them? Feel their feelings (to the best of your ability) so that you can create a more meaningful apology.

Listen to the hurt party

According to a 2005 study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, apologies were far more effective when the wronged person was given the chance to express their feeling beforehand. You may not want to listen to them — it may make you feel bad, after all —

but giving someone the chance to express why they're upset can help you craft a more meaningful apology and create a dialogue rather than a tidy little apology speech from you.

Speak (or write) with sincerity

You may be nervous when you apologize, so you may read off a pre-prepared speech or write an email that's formal and stiff. This can make your apology sound practiced and rehearsed and keep you from connecting with the listener. What you say is less important than how you say it, so speak from the heart, even if you fumble a bit.

If you're writing your apology, be sure to express why you're apologizing, acknowledge the other person's perspective, and offer to talk with them in person or by phone when the time is right. Generally, the only reason to write an apology is if the other person cannot or will not speak with you one on one.

Don't make excuses

Don't use your apology as a springboard to defend yourself and make excuses for your behavior. "I'm sorry, but..." is not going to count as an apology from the other person's perspective. A sincere apology may, however, open up a line of communication that will allow you to explain your behavior in a way that doesn't undermine the sincerity of your apology. Take the lead from the other person and see if they're ready for that kind of conversation.

Accept the consequences

The primary reason we don't apologize is that we don't want to be punished. Accepting the consequences of your behavior, and the consequences of admitting fault, is part of the equation when it comes to an effective apology. When you apologize, you have to be able to accept that the other person may not forgive you. They may not continue working with you. They may double down and criticize you even more. You can't control the way they respond; you can only control your own words and behavior.

If someone does begin to berate you after your apology, listen quietly then reiterate your apology and remove yourself from the situation as simply and quickly as you can. This is not the time to defend yourself or to take back the apology and launch into your own attack. Perhaps with time, they will feel differently, but for now, you've done what you can do. Leave it at that.


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