5 key steps for a sincere apology
It’s hard to say sorry – but if you’ve messed up, you need to make peace. Here’s how
How to say sorry
Maybe you failed, for whatever reason, to invite one of your best friends for lunch with the rest of the gang, and you’ve been getting the cold shoulder ever since. Or maybe you and your sister-in-law are on the outs because you overstepped and criticized her parenting methods.
Whatever the offence, there’s a right way and a wrong way to apologize. Offering an apology that is full of defensive words like “I’m sorry, but…” will not help the situation, because you’re not owning up to your hurtful behaviour. Nor will a curt “So sorry you feel that way” pave the way to forgiveness; the injured person may think her feelings aren’t important to you. “That is not an apology,” explains Ellie Tesher, the syndicated advice columnist whose words of wisdom appear in 30 Canadian newspapers. “If you’re truly apologizing, especially to maintain or re-stabilize the relationship, then you have to convey the message that you are sorry. No buts or excuses.”
Adds Kathryn Belicki, a psychologist and a professor at Brock University who has researched forgiveness and apology, suggesting that it’s the offended person’s fault for feeling the way he or she does means that “the offender is not really taking responsibility.”
When it comes to apologizing, says Belicki, “every situation is different and every individual is different. An apology is a dance between two people, and the offender has to figure out what works in the individual situation.”
Here are five key steps that can help you make a sincere apology.
As soon as you’re aware that you have hurt someone, convey that you are truly sorry for your behaviour. Send a heartfelt letter of regret for your actions, or arrange a meeting to apologize in person so the other person has a chance to read your mannerisms and facial expressions and to see that you are sincere.
Mirror the wounded person
Name what the hurtful behaviour was and acknowledge that you are responsible, so the person feels heard and understood. For example, “I know I made you feel left out when I didn’t include you in that dinner party I set up.”
Ask what you can do, if anything, to repair the relationship
But recognize that the damage may be irreparable or that the injured person may not be ready to forgive or resume the relationship immediately following an apology. “Forgiveness is a gift,” explains Belicki. “If I hurt you, who am I to expect you to forgive me, let alone get annoyed if you don’t forgive me.” Also, not everyone thinks of forgiveness and reconciliation as one and the same. The injured person may forgive you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she wants the relationship to continue.
Be truthful with yourself-and the person you hurt
There are situations in which, although the hurt happened because of something you did or said, you feel you are not responsible for it due to an extenuating circumstance. In this case, be self-aware, says Belicki. “First, do some real soul-searching to make sure you are not just dodging responsibility.” If you truly didn’t intend to hurt the other person, you still need to acknowledge that he or she was hurt. You can then explain, as fully and as truthfully as possible, what happened from your point of view. Says Belicki, “You shouldn’t assume responsibility if you feel you don’t truly carry it.”
If your behaviour is a habit, reform your ways
In cases where you have hurt an individual repeatedly, in order to rebuild their trust you may need to show that you have truly changed your hurtful behaviour. That’s the most concrete way to show the other person that this time, your apology is heartfelt.
Think of learning the art of apology as a way to strengthen your own character. Says Tesher: “I don’t think that saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying ‘I’m a bad person.’ It shows personal growth rather than wrongdoing.” And remember that a sincere apology can help both of you heal.
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