Effective Apologies

Saying sorry is not that hard. Not when you’re pulling out your carry-on from the overhead compartment and you bump that unsuspecting passenger. Or when your colleague has been waiting for that email from you since yesterday morning. Not even when you’ve just cut off someone because you were in a hurry and they make sure to let their horn tell you how they feel.

But when it comes to those who live and interact with us more intimately, apologizing is one of the hardest things to do, much less do effectively. There is a price to letting others into the limited confines of our heart space—we will bump into each other. Given the inevitably of these collisions, I’d like to speak to a few principles outlined by Harriet Lerner, PhD, that can help in making effective apologies. The following principles are taken from her interview with Brene Brown.

Principles for Effective Apologies

1. Drop the Add-Ons

Little add-ons like “but” (“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday but I was stressed out with work”) or “if” (“I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”) will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.

Something I’ve taken to saying in my work with individuals is “periods, not commas.” This refers to the importance of acknowledging the unintentional or deliberate impact of someone’s action on another person without any qualifications. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you, period” says a lot more than “I’m sorry for hurting you, but you were really stressing me out.” Or even “I’m sorry I didn’t see you were just trying to help out, but you can’t yell at your brother like that.” In many ways, anything that comes before that comma is rendered useless to the goal of healing.

I would add to Dr. Lerner’s comment that even if you aren’t saying it out loud, if there is a “but” or an “if” in your heart when apologizing, it will take away from the apology and the other person may pick up on it. Knowing someone is unconditionally remorseful is something we can just sense. To feel anything less can deepen and prolong the pain. This leads to a second point from Dr. Lerner:

2. Effective Apologies are not Bargaining Chips

An apology is not a bargaining chip that you use to get something back for yourself like forgiveness, or lowering your sense of guilt. Of course you may hope for these things, but a heartfelt apology is not about you.

Apologies don’t work as well if there is even the smallest part of you that is doing it with the expectation or demand that the other person apologize for anything they may have done, or that they forgive you. An apology needs to come from a place of care for the other person and commitment to the relationship. As Lerner says, “A whole-hearted apology means investing in the relationship, and the other person’s happiness.” If you need a minute to get into that more sincere and charitable heart space, then take it.

This is difficult if you are feeling guilt and shame proportionate to how much the other person means to you and/or how much you have betrayed your own values. These feelings are heavy and naturally you want relief from them. This weight is often compounded when the other person is detailing how you have hurt them. But it is important to remember that reflexively saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” or “I know, I know” essentially sends the message “my pain and discomfort matters more to me than yours.”

3. Listen with an Open Heart

A true apology for a serious injury or betrayal can be a long-distance run (not a sprint) that only begins with a sincere “I’m sorry.” To run the full distance, we need to put aside our defensiveness when we apologize, and listen with an open heart to what the hurt party needs to tell us on more than one occasion.

Imagine if you will, a damaged relationship as represented by a beautiful tapestry with a hideous tear through the middle. The tear is large and intimidating but a sincere apology is often the first stitch. And each time an injured person is brave enough to turn to the other and articulate the pain, a stitch is made. If the offender can turn to receive with “an open heart” the damage they have caused, another stitch mends the gap and pulls it tight. No one stitch is sufficient. But multiple back and forths can make the garment whole again over time.

For more insight and help related to making impactful apologies, read Dr. Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. If needed, please also consider seeking help with mending the tears in the tapestry of your relationship by calling us here at Colorado Counseling Center. 720-468-0101

About Joshua Downs

Joshua Downs, LCSW provides marriage counseling and individual therapy in the South Denver Metro Area. He uses Emotionally Focused Therapy with couples, and is a valuable member of the Colorado Counseling Center team. Learn more about Joshua's counseling specialties at coloradocounselingcenter.com/josh-downs

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