Mea Culpa: What Makes A Good Apology?

April 8, 2012

“Sorry.” The word trips off our tongues mechanically. We utter it so routinely that we don’t even bother framing a complete sentence. Who is sorry, and for what?  No wonder are apologies are rarely accepted. What then makes for a heartfelt apology?

I believe we can learn as much from an insincere apology as from a sincere one. Here are some familiar examples.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is so weak it barely qualifies as an apology. It lacks the fundamental  quality of an apology – ownership. If you regret what you said or did, then own up to it. Be specific about what your error was. Taking responsibility indicates to the listener that you understand the hurt you have caused.

“I don’t know what came over me.” Then, how about you do some self-reflection? The person you are asking for forgiveness from is not your therapist. I once had someone who misbehaved in my home call me afterwards to help her understand why she sometimes acts out of control. I was is no position to help because was I too busy cleaning up after her.

“The Devil made me do it.” Or the modern equivalent of devil could be society/alcohol/bad parenting. Don’t blame others for your errors. Calling it a ‘misunderstanding’ is also an excuse. No one buys  excuses. People don’t forgive on the strength of your extenuating circumstances. They forgive because they sense your remorse. “I made a stupid mistake, I am sorry,” has an authenticity about it because it signals to the listener a willingness to change.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” After a culprit is cornered, almost any apology he offers will be motivated by self-interest. The apology should be spontaneous. Express your remorse as soon as you realize your mistake. If you wait till you are caught, then you are merely sorry you got caught.

“Well, I guess we were both to blame.” An apology is not the U.N. There is no room for negotiation. While it takes two to argue, you are sorry for only your part in the argument, nothing more. If your apology is well received, the other party will ‘fess up to his own role in the skirmish. It is not your place to point out his faults.

“It won’t happen again.” If the listener is to believe this he needs to know what corrective steps you plan on making. The more concrete the steps, the more believable your apology. This requires some contemplation. It requires awareness of your actions and its consequences. “I’m sorry for the effects my drinking has caused you. I have now joined AA,” is specific and there is a concrete plan of corrective action.

“How long are you going keep this up?” I come from a family and a culture where emotions are worn on the sleeves. We fight large, we hug larger. I happen to live with someone who is from a family and culture that withdraws. It has taken me a while to understand this. Give the other person as much as space as he or she needs.

“It’s tiger blood.” Humility is everything in an apology. An arrogant tone of voice exasperates the hurt. A calm, measured tone of voice implies contrition, and careful choice of words informs the listener there is  intelligence behind the apology. I once had a houseguest who’s habits and routine apologies made it clear the man was a complete fool. When he said to me on his final day, “It won’t happen the next time.” I agreed. There should not be a next time. Forgiveness does not mean knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way, that is stupidity.

“What can I do to make it up to you?” A willingness to make amends is sign of sincerity. “I’ll do your laundry this week.” “Let me buy you dinner.”  Though be sure to see through any reasonable offer you make.

Actions speak louder than words. In intimate relationships, sometimes the things you do afterwards negate the need for a verbal apology. Caring gestures can demonstrate the depth of your true feelings far more eloquently than words. Your partner may not like you at this moment, but you can show to him or her that you still care.

“Where’s your messiah now?” Okay, this is no apology but I had to include it. As someone who is known to purse a spiritual way of life, forgiveness is expected from me, and so sometimes people don’t bother to say the words. While I do work at compassion, and will probably think up a dozen excuses to forgive you, it does make the whole processes faster for me to hear those words. Remember, when and if the injured party forgives is up to him. You may ask for forgiveness, but please take it for granted.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If not, yea well, whatever.


One Response to “Mea Culpa: What Makes A Good Apology?”

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