How to Make a Meaningful Apology
There's a reason Elton John sang "sorry seems to be the hardest word." Apologizing isn't always easy. For some people, it feels downright impossible. And for others, the word "sorry" comes so easily they forget what exactly they're apologizing for.
A lot of people struggle with apologizing effectively, said Jen Rives, a Minneapolis-based licensed marriage and family therapist, whether they're doing it not enough, too much or insincerely.
"It's such a character-enhancing practice, to be able to say 'I'm sorry,' to be able to acknowledge that you made a mistake, that you came up short, or you hurt someone," Rives said. "Apologizing is a strength. ... It's just one of the best tools to have in your 'I am a human being' tool kit."
So how can you do it better? Rives shared some tips to remember the next time you mess up—and, remember, "we all make mistakes, we all fall short," she said.
1. Be mindful when you're apologizing
Have people been telling you your whole life that you apologize too much? If so, you've probably responded to that with "I'm sorry." D'oh.
You should apologize only "when (you did) something that has stepped on someone's toes," or "if you're feeling guilty—that's a societal impulse that's an important thing to listen to," Rives said. But you should "step away from doing it by reflex."
But lot of people—especially women—have insta-apologizing deeply engrained in them, she said. How do you overcome it? With a mindfulness exercise. Pay attention to the times you start to say "I'm sorry" and asses whether it's necessary.
Notice your "apologies and have some reflection around when they're appropriate and helpful and when they're on autopilot," Rives said.
"When you have an impulse to say 'I'm sorry' for no reason at all," "(identify)... and (notice) the feelings that come up... What emotions you have as you don't move in to say 'I'm sorry.'"
2. Apologizing isn't always the same as admitting you were wrong
On the other end of the spectrum is the group who could stand to do a little more apologizing. You probably know who you are. Making a sincere apology means making yourself vulnerable, Rives said, and that is hard for a lot of people.
If you want to get better at apologizing, try approaching it in a different way.
"Everything we do has an impact on other people around us," Rives said. When you think you should apologize, "instead of feeling, 'Oh, I have to admit that I was wrong and somebody else was right,' a better, more helpful reframe is 'What I do has an impact.' ... That's just saying, 'There are consequences to my actions.'"
Here are some examples: "I'm so sorry for my part in this," "I'm so sorry I hurt you," "I'm so sorry I upset you."
It's along the same lines as having empathy for someone you don't necessarily agree with, Rives said.
"Being empathetic to someone does not mean that you're wrong and they're right about something," she said. "It simply means that you're acknowledging a different experience or a different point of view."
We're all human, and being vulnerable and fallible is part of that.
"When you're with someone who never apologizes" the tone of the relationship is "no mistakes allowed, no messiness and no vulnerability," Rives said. Think about a boss or a coworker you've had who would refuse to take responsibility for their part in mishaps.
"I think likable people admit that they are wrong, and we all want to be likable," Rives said.
3. Focus on you, not on them
When we mess up and are called out for it, it's easy to get defensive, or even to toss it back into the other person's face, to point out what they did to contribute to the situation.
When "we feel vulnerable for something, embarrassed for something, guilty for something, then defense comes to cover it up," Rives said. "It's really difficult to be with a person who's always in defense mode."
It takes "getting in touch with that vulnerability and being able to hang with it long enough to know that you can come from a place of humility and vulnerability instead of getting into defense mode."
This requires mindfulness, too. Notice how you feel when you start to get defensive. Accept that feeling of tension as normal and get into the habit of apologizing if you've messed up rather than deflecting, Rives said.
"It's not a time to focus on the other person in terms of what they did," she said. "You don't want to interrupt. If someone is telling you something they're upset about, don't defend, don't justify. ... Ultimately, giving the other person positive intent and assuming they are hurt or angry for valid reasons."
"It begins to feel very freeing, to say 'I'm sorry' for something that happened," Rives said.