The bad apology: We’ve all heard one. We’ve all used one. And when we do it feels so gross.
“God, I’m SORRY!”
“I don’t know what I did but whatever it is I apologize.”
“I guess I’m sorry that you think I wasn’t listening.”
“Look, I said I’m sorry. Why’re you still angry?
No. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. Actually, a bad apology usually makes the person we’re apologizing to even more upset. Because it isn’t really an apology.
A bad apology is a demand. It’s a shield. It’s selfish.
A bad apology translates to:
“Stop feeling angry. Stop being sad. You being upset means I’m a bad person. I don’t wanna hear that. I said I’m sorry so I can be done with this.”
A bad apology takes care of ourselves. It denies responsibility because acknowledging we did something wrong is uncomfortable.
But all of this misses the whole point of an apology.
A good apology is supposed to take care of the person who’s hurt. It’s a gift of your empathy and understanding.
A good apology requires you to sit for a moment in the head of the person across from you and set aside your own discomfort to take care of them.
A good apology provides resolution so that both of you get to feel genuinely better at the end.
So if you want to practice a good apology, here are the steps:
Criticism often feels deeply personal and emotionally charged. When someone tells you that you did something that hurt or offends them, you’re likely going to feel a sharp pang of adrenaline. Don’t counterattack. Hold back your defensiveness. Don’t argue. Don’t explain why you did what you did. In a good apology, those are inside thoughts. Breathe. Remind yourself that you aren’t being attacked, so you don’t need to defend.
You have to listen carefully to what the person is upset about. Maybe even repeat back to them what you hear them saying. Then with genuine curiosity and without anger, ask them if you understood. Allow them to correct you and repeat this until you understand clearly.
“Oh, you’re saying that being on the phone when I got home today felt like I was ignoring you. Is that right?”
“…and I wasn’t paying attention to the questions you were asking me. Ok.”
Pause and take a moment to think about how they felt. Really consider the situation from their perspective; then express why their reaction makes sense to you. If it still doesn’t make sense, go back to asking questions (with curiosity and without anger) until it does.
“That makes sense. I can see why if I’m literally not responding it feels like I was ignoring you.”
Accept that you did something wrong. Say this clearly to the other person without trying to soften the “wrongness” of what you did or shift the blame. They will see right through that.
“You’re right. I wasn’t really paying attention today. It was inconsiderate and thoughtless, and I know you like for us to talk when I get home.”
Say the damn words.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry I made you feel ignored. I don’t ever want you to think I don’t care about you.”
Identify what you would like to do differently and then do it. And if in the moment, you’re not sure how to fix the problem, you can say that too, as long as you also verbally take the responsibility to think about it and come up with something later.
“Tomorrow I’ll make sure to set down my phone when I come in.”
The point of a good apology is to take care of the person you love. Circle back to how they feel. Gently ask them if they feel better. Keep in mind that they might not feel better, but even if it’s not in this moment, a good apology can lead to emotional resolution.
“I love you. How’re you feeling? ”
Calm yourself. Listen. Reflect. Take Responsibility. Apologize Directly. Take Action. Check-in.
A good apology helps. It does what apologies are supposed to do. It takes care of someone who’s hurt.
It’s important to remember that good apologies are necessary but they’re not a silver bullet. All of the above assumes that the person you’re apologizing to is emotionally aware and is acting in good faith. It assumes that they know their needs and are being direct. Without those conditions met, even the best apology might go south.
There are so many things that get in the way of peace in our relationships. If you find yourself stuck, that even your good apologies don’t seem to be moving you toward a place of resolution, please reach out. That’s where therapy can help.
But to start with it’s important to step back from the bad apologies, step back from defending yourself, and in a moment of vulnerability choose to be loving instead.