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Join Dave S. Anderson and me for this podcast episode to discuss why our memory is faulty and how to deliver an effective apology
At the beginning of couples coaching, I always ask each partner three questions. Questions 1 and 2 are about what kind of relationship they want to create and why. Question 3 is “What is required of ME to create this?”
Susan comes to couples coaching, saying, “One of the things I really have to learn is to say sorry. It just feels so awful when I have made a mistake, and I usually get very defensive.”
The struggle to apologize is widespread. Most of us have been conditioned to shame ourselves when we are told that we have done something “wrong.” Instead of taking ownership and mending a rift with the other person, we often minimize, ridicule, get defensive, explain, or become angry. Because our feelings of shame are so uncomfortable, we do not usually take the step to empathize with the other person and deliver a heartfelt apology.
Susan has repeatedly made fun of her husband in front of friends, and he expresses his feelings of embarrassment. She says “sorry,” but her tone shows that she thinks that he is overly sensitive. As a result, her husband begins to keep his vulnerable feelings to himself. When Susan forgets another meeting with her girlfriend, she makes excuses blaming her electronic calendar. She asks to reschedule and says “thank you,” but not once does she take the step to put her feet into her friend’s shoes to acknowledge how it impacted her that Susan stood her up. A year later, Susan realizes with surprise that her friend hardly reaches out anymore. Overwhelmed by shame, she has missed an opportunity to make amends for a blunder.
To comfortably apologize, we need to feel that it is okay to make mistakes and trust that the other person will forgive us when we take ownership. The quality of your apology speaks volumes about how meaningful a relationship is to you. A poor or missed apology can worsen a tense situation and usually causes other people to avoid us. A skipped or half-hearted apology means that your partner, family member, or friend will store your offensive behaviour or mistake in their long-term memory, which becomes part of the impression they have of you. On the other hand, a well-delivered or spontaneous apology given as soon as possible usually means the offence is forgiven and forgotten quickly.
A meaningful or heartfelt apology consists of what Beverly Engel (author of “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship”) calls the three R’s: Regret, Responsibility and Remedy. An apology is not complete until we have included all three steps:
1. Expressing Regret and Empathy
Having empathy for the person is the essential part of an apology. It is necessary to take enough time to acknowledge the impact your action or your words had on the other person. If you don’t have empathy, the other person will pick up on that because your apology will sound and feel empty or fake.
You can express remorse by making eye contact and using a sincere tone and heartfelt words. Here are some phrases that can help you to acknowledge the other person’s feelings:
“I regret saying this. You must have felt…”,
“I know this has been hard for you. I imagine you felt…”,
“I am so sorry you felt…”,
“I understand how you feel, and I am truly sorry,”
“I feel terrible about what I said/did, and I sincerely apologize.”
2. Taking Responsibility
Taking full responsibility and owning your part in an interaction means not blaming somebody else, not making excuses, and not even explaining. The last aspect is perhaps hard to understand. Generally, the other person’s intent was good. But a well-meant intention can still hurt the other one immensely. When we apologize, any explanation is side-tracking us from really taking ownership of a mistake. So when you hear yourself saying, “I did this because…” or “My intention was…” remind yourself that explanations weaken your apology. “I was selfish, and I take full responsibility for what I did/said” or “I overstepped and should not have interfered” on the other hand, is owning it.
3. Showing your Willingness to Remedy the Situation
It helps if you show that you genuinely want to make amends. The phrase “I will never do it again” is empty and meaningless unless we know what we can do differently next time. Instead, come up with a realistic way to not repeat the hurtful behaviour. For example, “In the future, I will…”. If you are unsure how to avoid the same situation, brainstorm with your partner or a professional: “Can you help me figure out what I/we could do differently moving forward?”
You can find more about why it is hard to apologize in my blog “Why won’t you apologize?”
If you want to create close and loving relationships, reach out for individual sessions or couples coaching.