The Sorry Apology

Your friend trusted you with a special secret you didn’t keep; and soon it got back to her. You were running late for work this morning and snapped at your son because you felt he made you even more late. A disagreement with your husband turned into a full-fledged fight and you lashed out with harsh and derogatory statements you still regret having said.

We all know how it feels to be hurt by another’s words or actions. But when we’re the culprit who has harmed or offended others, do we take the necessary steps to make things right?

Sometimes it’s just easier to forget it and move on — or, we think people will let our comments slide, after all, time heals all things, right? Wrong. Unresolved verbal damage doesn’t just evaporate. Like an untreated wound, it simply festers and can sever relationships, affect others’ sense of confidence, or even lead to further destruction over time.

If we’ve been guilty of causing injury with our words, saying we’re sorry is the most straightforward way we can help others recover from the pain we’ve caused. But apologizing and asking for forgiveness is probably one of the most difficult things for most people to do. That’s why so many of us simply don’t. But if we’re gutsy enough to face the music and take responsibility for our inappropriate actions, then we’ll need to learn how to make an authentic apology … and mean it.

Contrary to what many might believe, an apology is not a sign of weakness; it takes a tremendous amount of courage and dignity to stand accountable. It is also not an announcement of defeat; it doesn’t signify “you win, I lose.” Apologizing is a selfless act able to disarm hurt, anger and bitterness and can even make the repentant one feel better. But what we say and how we say it can make the difference between patching things up or making the situation worse.
For an apology to get the most “bang for its buck,” it should be as specific as possible. “I’m sorry I said those unkind things,” is good, but “I’m sorry I said you are not as attractive as you use to be” is more effective because it demonstrates to the scorned person you are aware of the exact words that caused him or her pain. But don’t attach an “if” to your apology, it dilutes your sincerity and does not exhibit a complete attitude of penitence.

“I’m sorry I was insensitive” is admirable but, “I’m sorry if I was insensitive” is not.

“I’m sorry I said you are ignorant” is more earnest than “I’m sorry if I offended you when I said you are ignorant.”

“I’m sorry for betraying your confidence” is more genuine than “I’m sorry if you feel I betrayed your confidence.”

“I’m sorry my comments were sarcastic” is more effectual than “I’m sorry if my sarcastic comments bothered you.”

“Sorry if” is a conditional apology, which can exacerbate the problem. And “I’m really sorry you’re angry” doesn’t work either. This simply declares you realize the person is hurt but you are not necessarily to blame. And it’s best to stick with the basic “I’m sorry” script, because substituting other words can extend the issue further. Saying “I regret” or anything other than just plain “sorry” can make others feel you are trying to dance around an admission of guilt. “I apologize” is good, as long as you leave out the “if” scenario here, too.

The word “but” as in “I’m sorry for hurting you, but…” is equally as destructive as the word “if” in an apology. Again, it’s another way to excuse your behavior instead of just “fessing up” and saying an unadulterated “I’m sorry.”

A proper apology should always include the following elements:

  • A statement of remorse
  • Asking for forgiveness
  • A detailed account of the situation
  • Acknowledgement of the hurt or damage caused
  • Taking responsibility for the situation
  • Taking accountability for your role in the event
  • Restitution if necessary

Although saying sorry can be complex and unpredictable, here are a few guidelines to help you deliver a more effective apology:

  • A statement of remorse should communicate regret and acknowledge personal responsibility.
  • Requesting forgiveness should be done face to face or on the phone. A text message or e-mail does not allow for a healthy back and forth verbal exchange, and can be misconstrued as impersonal.
  • Clearly acknowledge you understand you have hurt the other person.
  • Don’t defend yourself or blame others for your hurtful behavior.
  • Avoid the temptation to start debating about who started the verbal combat first.
  • Allow the offended party the opportunity to express their pain and hurt.
  • Say sorry as soon as you’re able to. Waiting too long breeds bitterness and more ill feelings between both parties.
  • Be sincere. Many people can be so caught up with getting forgiven, clearing a name or making peace that they can come off disingenuous. But be sure you actually acknowledge your part in the wrongdoing and own up to it.
  • Don’t have someone else apologize on your behalf.
  • You can describe what led you to cause the insult or attack, but don’t use the opportunity to make excuses or justify your behavior.

Stating you will be careful to never let this happen again (and making sure to keep your word) will go a long way in restoring relationship. Repeating your misdeed, however, cancels out your apology.

Don’t fret if you are not immediately forgiven. Sometimes the offended party needs time to digest your apology. And an apology for a serious offense can be a long and an ongoing process. But at least you’ll have the sense of satisfaction knowing you’ve owned up to what you’ve done.

Even a longstanding grudge can be resolved with a clear and sincere apology, so don’t ever think it’s too late to say sorry. Although just a few simple words, saying sorry can go a long way in restoring relationships and delivering healing to someone who may have suffered because of an unkind statement or attack.

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