The Anatomy of A Good Apology

The Anatomy of A Good Apology


Taking responsibility for your actions helps others heal

I am sorry messageAs we leap past Valentine’s Day and “the month of love,” into March, it’s good to look at what goes into building and maintaining a lasting relationship long after all the chocolates are eaten and the flowers have died. One of the things I’ve noticed in my years of practice is that people don’t always get how, when, or even why to apologize. Much less knowing how to do it so it lands right – instead of triggering Armageddon. Here are some thoughts and ideas that will help you say “sorry” the right way the first time.

Why should you apologize?

You apologize to fix the relationship, not because of the obligations of society. When you say “sorry” it’s your attempt to repair the damage, so you can continue the way things were, or build things even better. Just trying to make thing right builds depth and intimacy even more than if you didn’t mess up in the first place.

When should you apologize?

There is no “best before date” on saying “sorry.” Whenever you realize, or are made aware that you have hurt some one, it’s totally appropriate to apologize. Even years later, a heart-felt apology can be extremely meaningful to someone receiving it.

But don’t say “sorry” just to make the problem go away. First off, it will seem fake and then you lose credibility for the future; secondly, it’s not fair for you to take responsibility for things that aren’t yours – you rob the other person of their opportunity to grow and you’ll start to resent the relationship and the other person after awhile.

What is an apology?

When you apologize you are letting the other person know that you are taking responsibility for how your actions caused them pain. Whether you intended it or not!

An example I use a lot in my talks and with my clients is: If I walk over to you to give you a birthday present, but I stumble and step on your toes; most reasonable people would think that it would be appropriate to apologize. I would be acknowledging how my actions (stepping on your toes) hurt you – even if my intent was to help you (delivering your gift.) So you don’t need to have bad intent to offer an apology. Just acknowledge the other persons feelings and take ownership for your actions. “I’m so sorry I broke your toe when I stepped on your foot. Can I take you to the hospital or get you some ice?”

So when you say “sorry” you’re not saying that it was all your fault. In fact, you’re not saying anything about fault at all. You’re just being responsible and grown up.

An apology is not a sign of weakness, but rather it’s a sign of strength and maturity. People respect others who can own their own stuff. You grow in the eyes of other healthy people – not shrink.

“Sorry” is also not a magic word that guarantees you’ll be forgiven. If you really care about the other person, you will understand (and even let them know) that they may need some time to let the apology sink in and feel safe with you again.

What does a good apology look like?

The truth is that the best apology is the simplest apology. You should acknowledge that you hurt the other person and identify their feelings if possible. You take responsibility for your behavior. You offer to make it right. And then you should stop talking!

Most people can understand the first three parts but mess up by not keeping quiet after. Anything you say after this weakens the apology. If they ask you what was going on, or for clarification then you can give it, but this is not the time for explanations (and definitely not excuses) with out being asked for one!

“An apology is not a sign of weakness, but rather it’s a sign of strength and maturity.”

What does a bad one look like?

If you really want to screw up your relationship, you can also use the word “sorry” in one of these abusive ways that makes the other person wrong:

  • “Sorry your toe is broken” (denying your role in the toe-breaking).
  • “Jeeesse, I’m sooorrrry!” (dripping with sarcasm and with the obligatory eye-roll).
  • “Sorry your feet are so big” or “sorry your toes are soooo sensitive!”
  • “Sorry I broke your toe, but you know I’m clumsy. It’s not my fault!”
  • “Sorry I broke your toe, but if your feet weren’t in the way, or you were smart enough to wear steel-toed boots, none of this would have happened!”

I think you get the idea. If you really care about the other person, don’t make their pain or your actions their fault.

So remember, acknowledge how your actions caused the other person pain, offer to make it right and then keep quiet!  You’ll not only be able to fix your relationship when you mess up, but you’ll be able to build strength and intimacy with the person you care about.

Points to remember:

  1. You apologize to restore (and build) the relationship.
  2. Don’t say “sorry” just to make the argument or problem go away.
  3. Only strong, healthy people say “sorry.”
  4. Take responsibility for your actions.
  5. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings.
  6. Try to make it right where you can.
  7. Shut up!! Don’t justify or make excuses – just say “sorry” and stop talking.
  8. You can say “sorry” even if you didn’t intend to hurt the other person.
  9. It’s NEVER too latean apology doesn’t have an expiration date.
  10. It may take time for the other person to forgive you – “sorry” is NOT a magic word.
Dr. Ganz Ferrance, PH.D., R. PSYCH.
“Dr. Ganz” is an international speaker; author; entrepreneur, and award-winning psychologist. His straight-forward and humorous style has made him a sought-after coach, speaker and media favourite. He has been helping individuals, families and organizations have greater success, and more satisfying lives, for over 20 years.


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