Forgiveness can be healing, freeing and empowering — but what if you’re on the flip side, the one who inflicted the pain, made the mistake or caused the damage?
Apologizing is a critical step in righting a (perceived) wrong, yet rigidity, pride and oblivion are often culprits that make it a difficult one for many.
7 Ways to Botch an Apology — and What to Do Instead
Apologizing is a life skill. We learn to say “I’m sorry” before pre-school and continue to refine our ability to offer apologies into adulthood.
An effective apology embodies more than mere words. In fact, you can sabotage your attempt to mend the fence in many ways:
- You fail to take ownership — Any time you add the word “but” to the end of an apology, you essentially negate it by justifying the action (“I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the meeting, but Mary didn’t tell me you were interested in attending”). A sincere apology begins by accepting responsibility for what you said or did (“I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the meeting. It was an oversight on my part”). You don’t shift the blame, create excuses or offer rationalizations; rather, you own it.
- You lack empathy — You fail to acknowledge the impact on the other person in the apology. Empathy allows you to view the situation from the other person’s perspective, imagining how they felt — or still feel — because of your action. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you agree with their reaction, or that you would respond the same way if you were in their shoes, it just means you understand their view.
- You don’t mean it — A perfunctory apology differs from an authentic apology. Remember duking it out with your first-grade nemesis on the playground until the recess supervisor intervened? There was no chance of getting back to the jungle gym until you offered mutual apologies. This type of obligatory “I’m sorry” is empty — a simple means to an end. You know it, and the person on the receiving end usually knows it, too.
- You overapologize — The boy who cried wolf lost his credibility. So will you if you offer apologies at every turn, particularly if they’re unwarranted.
- You berate yourself — Ruminating over a wrongdoing doesn’t help you move forward. Rather, it produces guilt and/or shame. Neither is productive, unless it becomes the proverbial sand in the oyster. Forgiving can be one of the greatest gifts you give another person—or yourself.
- You continue the behavior — If you say you’re sorry for being late with a report, it needs to be backed by an intent to plan better for the next one, or the apology will be a recurrent one. If you insult your mother-in-law’s ability to bake by bringing your own store-bought dessert to the holiday dinner, next time offer to bring an appetizer. Changing your behavior sends the message, “I get it. I respect you. I’ll do better.”
- You fail to rebuild trust — Trust, a foundational element in any relationship, is a fragile commodity. When it shatters, it can cause pain and take time to heal. Rebuilding trust takes effort, courage and commitment. It can only be restored to a relationship when both parties are open to giving and receiving it.
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