A person who needs to apologise, but doesn’t, has a problem. They either:
a) have a legal problem facing them and an apology is financially or legally unwise.
b) Or they lack the insight to see what they did was wrong. In which case, they don’t grow.
c) Or they lack the capacity to feel remorse. So, they can’t grow.
d) Or they lack the courage to accept that they made a mistake.
We can only deal with (d). Quality apologies are rare, and even rarer when it comes to adults apologising to children. That’s because most of us are afraid of losing face, fearing that by apologising we might be seen as weak, and be taken less seriously.
But when someone feels offended or wronged or disadvantaged by inappropriate behaviour they need to feel safe in the knowledge that the incident won’t happen again. That’s when it’s right that we give a full apology: one that indicates genuine remorse and a permanent change in our behaviour.
Though let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting we apologise so that the other person benefits; I’m suggesting it because we benefit.
An apology is about turning our attention to the other person; it’s not about making ourselves feel better. Nevertheless, when we apologise we benefit. By taking full responsibility for our actions, by fully acknowledging that what we did was wrong, we significantly increase the likelihood that we won’t make the same mistake again. (Shame has a lot going for it!) As a consequence, we become more competent and more self-assured, and bolder, and make better decisions in life. We earn back the trust and respect of others, too, because they also know we are less likely to make the same mistake again. That strengthens the connections we have with people.
Further, by acknowledging our faults – to ourselves and to others – we can lance the ‘pus ball of shame’ within us and experience enormous relief. Shame has done its job. It can now return to the Dark Forest.
And, having allowed ourselves to experience that vulnerability we remind ourselves that we can cope with the consequences, and that we can handle life. So, we add to that feeling that whatever happens, we’ll handle it.
That is why having the ability to give a full, considered apology (only when it is due) is a big confidence booster, and a key to resilience and core happiness.
Q. ‘Isn’t giving an apology a sign of weakness?’
A thoughtful apology is a sign of strength and maturity. It’s a sign that you are taking responsibility for what happened. Instead of being perceived as weak, your credibility soars.
‘So, I’m the one benefiting from the apology?’
Both of you benefit. The recipient feels safe again; you soothe your conscience and build your confidence.
Q. ‘Can I give a written apology?’
A face-to-face apology is normally best, but sometimes a written apology is less confrontational. You decide. Less serious issues can be handled via phone or email. I suggest you write the apology even if you don’t send it, just to get your thoughts in order.
Q. ‘Some people apologise all the time. It ends up not meaning anything.’
Good point. Don’t over-apologise. Especially avoid the habitual ‘sorry’ some people murmur repeatedly.
Q. ‘I gave a written apology to my school teacher. How will I know if she accepted my apology?’
You may not come to know. That’s none of your business. ‘Why not? I wrote the letter!’ The recipient of an apology owes you nothing. Your teacher will decide whether or not she has accepted your apology, and whether or not she has forgiven you. And she is not obliged to give you her decision.
The purpose of your apology is to take responsibility for what you have done, not to earn her forgiveness.
Hopefully, as a byproduct, your teacher feels better, and safer.
‘I don’t benefit?’
You do. Each time you take responsibility for what you have done you confront your own fallibility, and are reminded that you are not diminished by it.
Q. ‘What if I don’t think I should apologise, but it is expected?’
Go over the incident to ensure you aren’t chickening out. Then, if you still believe you should not apologise, don’t. If you like, politely explain your reasons.
Q. ‘What if the person is still not happy after receiving my apology?’
If it is a good apology, and you have done your genuine best to make amends, there is nothing more you can do.
Q. ‘What if the other person is partly at fault?’
The part the other person played is irrelevant to your apology. Apologise for the part you played in the incident. Don’t qualify it by mentioning the part they played. Make that a separate discussion. An apology needs to be uncontaminated.
Q. ‘When can I demand an apology?’
Before you demand an apology ask yourself why you want it. Is it to exercise power over the person because you are in the right? Or is it because you want the person to accept responsibility and be less likely to do it again?
‘I will demand an apology to make a stand. So that the person thinks twice, next time.’
You can demand an apology but you might not get one. That could make you feel worse. Don’t ask for one unless you are sure you can handle not getting one. If you don’t get one, don’t dwell on the fact.
‘I suppose if I do demand one and get it, it will be lousy and full of resentment.’
Not always. But remember, most people aren’t practised at giving apologies. Usually they try to justify their position, so there is a good chance you will feel worse afterwards.
Q. ‘If I throw a cricket ball at the stumps and send someone home with a broken toe, do I have to give a full apology and intend to change my ways?’
We don’t need to make a full apology when we unintentionally hurt or offend someone (unless it’s by negligence). When we say sorry in such an instance we are not apologising for what we did, we are expressing concern.
‘So, Jill tells me her father just died. If I killed him I give a full apology. If I didn’t kill him I can say sorry to express my concern that she’s suffering.’
How to give a good apology.
Strangely, at school we are taught to sing Kumbaya and Frère Jacques but not taught how to give a decent apology.
There will be times when you believe you don’t owe an apology. In such instances don’t give one. If you’re not sure, talk the matter over with a friend.
If you don’t know why the person is upset with you, find out why. Then, if you decide to apologise, it will mean something.
Giving an apology face to face is better, but sometimes a handwritten letter is a good idea. Writing an apology helps you get your thoughts in order, and it is less confrontational.
You are asked to look after a friend’s meal while they answer the door. The meal sits on a coffee table. Your dog enters the room and scoffs your friend’s dinner. Your friend returns to find no dinner and a contented dog. In this instance you owe an apology.
Step 1. Use the words, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I was wrong’ or ‘I apologise’. These are important words. They establish a tone of respect and concern.
Step 2. Explain precisely what you did wrong. It is important for the other person to know that you know.
This is the hardest bit. Let the person know you have taken the trouble to search for what went wrong. Don’t explain away your actions. Don’t mention that the other person was at fault as well. Look only at your own behaviour.
‘I am sorry, but —’ Wrong. Do not use the word ‘but’.
‘I should not have trusted Jill. She told me the dog was outside.’ Wrong. You are indirectly blaming Jill.
‘I was negligent. I did not ensure the dog was outside.’ Correct.
Step 3. Indicate that you understand the consequences of your actions.
‘I realise you are hungry —’
‘I understand that you have been hurt —’
‘I realise it would be upsetting —’
Step 4. Give the apology.
‘I apologise for not being careful with my dog.’
‘I am sorry because —’
‘I sincerely regret that I . . . and apologise for it.’
The recipient should feel you are taking full responsibility for what happened.
Step 5. Tell the person you are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again. Explain the steps.
‘I will from now on place your dinner where the dog can’t reach it.’
‘I will be taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. First, I will be —’
Let the person know that their concerns are being taken seriously and are being addressed. That is important to them and it will aid reconciliation considerably.
There are pluses for you: If you do in future take steps to avoid problems you will become more competent. You will become proficient at seeing potential problems and avoiding them. You will end up being more trusted.
Step 6. Ask the person how you can make amends.
‘What can I do to improve the situation?’
‘How can I make amends?’
‘May I cook you a dinner?’
The person’s requests need to be reasonable. Some people might try to take advantage of your superb apology because they think you have relinquished your power. You have not. On the contrary, by taking responsibility for the incident you have empowered yourself. Use that power to negotiate a fair resolution.
Step 7. Don’t ask for forgiveness. The person is aware of the concept and can make that decision without your prompting. (If you must ask, declare you would like their forgiveness, but don’t wait for a response. Don’t wait for ‘Yes, I forgive you.’)
Don’t expect an outcome. Do not expect to be forgiven. Your apology is not contingent on you being forgiven. You are giving an apology solely to express sincere regret. If the other person chooses to not forgive you, that’s their decision. They don’t even have to tell you their decision. It’s none of your business.
But let the other person respond. Don’t, for example, immediately leave the room.
The other person might take hours, or days to get back to you. If at all. When they do, don’t say anything that might negate or diminish your apology. Listen to them and put yourself in their shoes. Your job is to understand how they felt about the incident, or how they felt about your apology, not set them straight.
Step 8. Aim to let the incident go. Don’t punish yourself. If you have been sincere, and will be ensuring the incident does not happen again, and if you have done your best to rectify the problem, then you are on the right path and that’s good enough. Don’t dwell on the matter. Everyone makes blunders. This was your turn.
‘I apologise.’ (The key word.)
‘I negligently let my dog steal your dinner.’ (That indicates you know your ‘crime’.)
‘I realise you are hungry, and it would be upsetting.’ (You realise the consequences)
‘I apologise for not being careful with my dog.’ (You’re taking responsibility.)
‘I will from now on ensure the dog is outside when we eat.’ (Preventative steps.)
‘In what way can I make amends? May I cook your dinner?’ (You are rectifying the situation.)
Here is a fictional example from a troublesome student to her teacher:
‘Dear Miss Cohen, I am sorry for my prank. It was wrong. I did not intend to hurt your feelings, I just wanted to get a laugh, but it was a cheap laugh and it was at your expense. I was wrong to do that. I realise my prank upset you and I am sorry that it did. I apologise. I wish I had not done it. I will not do a prank like that in the future. I will consider the person’s feelings first. Please let me know if there is a way that I can make amends.
The student giving the apology has:
– said she was sorry,
– explained how the problem occurred, without excusing herself,
– displayed remorse,
– has promised to not do it again,
– has indicated why she will not do it again.
– has offered to make amends.
How to give a lousy apology.
‘I’m sorry for what I did, but I’ve had a hard day.’ Wrong. That’s not taking responsibility. Avoid the word ‘but’ and don’t give excuses. Try instead:
‘I’m sorry for what I did.’ Good. Then think of ways to prevent a hard day from having such an influence over you in the future.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ Wrong. You seem to be suggesting that the recipient is thin-skinned, and that you shouldn’t be apologising for something so minor.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I regret and apologise for what I have done.’ Good. That’s more honest.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I’ll try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.’ Wrong. Do more than try.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I will ensure it doesn’t happen again.’ (Good. And, ensure it doesn’t.)
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise it meant so much to you.’ That’s not even an apology; it’s a sneer.
‘We apologise for the inconvenience.’ Wrong. Keep your apologies for when you’ve done something wrong. Try:
‘We regret that you have been inconvenienced.’ Even ‘regret’ isn’t the right word. A truly honest and non-patronising statement would be:
‘We understand that you have been inconvenienced.’
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I thought you had a sense of humour.’ Wrong. That’s not a sincere apology; it’s blaming the other person for not seeing the incident in the same way you do.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I thought you might find it funny.’ Wrong. You are still blaming the other person for not finding it funny. Try:
‘I was wrong and I’m sorry. I can see you were hurt and I regret it.’
‘I owe you an apology.’ Wrong, unless you immediately follow with the apology itself. Telling someone you owe them $20 is not the same as giving them the $20. Try:
‘I apologise for —’
‘I wish to apologise for —’ Wrong. Wishing you were giving someone $20 is not the same as giving them $20. Try:
‘I apologise for —’
‘Sorry, do you have the time please?’
‘Sorry, can I sit here please?’
‘Sorry, I have a question.’
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Delete the word ‘sorry’. Don’t be a ‘sorry’. Apologise only when you do something wrong that you could have avoided. You have every right to ask for the time, etc.
‘I’m sorry you have been ill.’ That’s alright, because the word ‘sorry’ in this context is not an apology, it’s a regret. It’s a term to express dismay.
▪ Don’t wheedle out of giving an apology. When you have done something wrong, admit it and apologise for it.
▪ If you have wronged someone in the past it might not be too late to give that person a full apology. Even if it’s in writing.
▪ Apologise only for what you did wrong. Don’t make it a grovel-fest.
An example of a lousy apology.
I give this real example not to sink the boot into the giver of the apology. He remains unnamed and I hope unrecognised. And anyway, the past is past.
I don’t even know if his apology was warranted because I don’t know the facts of the matter. You and I are examining this apology only because it’s a good example of a lousy apology.
‘I love the XX club. It’s been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father’s life, it was part of my grandfather’s life.
And I am so sorry for anything that’s happened or that’s been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our football club.
I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game . . . that has given me so much and given so many people so much.’
Let’s examine his words.
‘I love the club. It’s been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father’s life, it was part of my grandfather’s life.’
In other words, ‘I meant no wrong. I hope you will go easy on me.’ That’s acceptable, I guess.
‘And I am so sorry for —’
He apologises, but to whom? To no one. It’s as though he feels obligated to fling out an apology, and does so, without giving thought to the people who might actually deserve it. We can feed someone either by placing the food in front of them, or by flinging the food onto the floor and letting someone find it. Which is the more sincere, the more respectful? Try instead:
‘I apologise to A, B and C.’ That’s respectful, and it’s taking responsibility. He could add something like: ‘I realise this affects everyone in the club, including the supporters, and I apologise to them.’
‘I am so sorry for — (what’s) been done wrong to our players —’
He appears to be apologising for what other people have done wrong. No one can apologise for what someone else has done without being disingenuous and patronising. Try instead (depending on the truth of the matter):
‘I will not apologise for the actions of others. However, I deeply regret that I did not adequately oversee . . . and I apologise for not doing so.’
‘I knew what other people were doing and I knew it was wrong. I apologise for condoning their actions —’
‘I’m sorry for what I did wrong to our players.’
‘I cannot apologise because I have done nothing wrong.’
Now let’s look at his whole sentence:
‘And I am so sorry for anything that’s happened or that’s been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our club.’
‘anything that’s happened —’ Could he get any vaguer?
‘anything that’s been done wrong —’ He uses the word ‘anything’ rather than ‘everything’, putting in doubt that there even has been a wrong. It’s as though he doesn’t know what has been done wrong, but is apologising for it anyway. How patronising. He’s like a child admitting to wrongs he doesn’t understand, just to get the fuss over and done with and to keep people happy. He appears hapless, not contrite.
If his apology were sound he might say something like, ‘I believe I have done nothing wrong and I apologise for nothing. However, I am distressed with how much suffering there has been in the club and I recognise that many people believe I am at least partly responsible for it. I will be doing everything I can to ensure — ’
‘I am sorry to A, B and C for —’ (citing specifically what he did wrong, one item after the other.)
‘I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game . . . that has given me so much and given so many people so much.’
He would not seriously believe that we would think he was intentionally harming the club or the game, so why would he say that? He says it because he wants to make himself look innocent, and to avoid taking responsibility. He could say something like (depending on the truth of the matter):
‘I and we have harmed this club and the game. On behalf of myself and (the others) I apologise for doing so.’
‘With our negligence, I and we have harmed this club and the game. On behalf of myself and —’
‘I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game, which is why I insist that we are innocent— .’
When I saw the apology I got the feeling the speaker was weary of the accusations, and was throwing apologies at us to get us off his back. His distress was sincere, but his apologies didn’t seem to be.
Perhaps he was genuinely remorseful. If so, he could work on his ability to give apologies.
If he believes (perhaps rightly) that he does not owe an apology, it might explain why he gave such a good lousy apology.
An addendum: After all I have said, his apology might be perfect if we take legal ramifications into account. I’m not picking on the man for not giving a better apology, I’m using his apology as an example of what not to do. In the legal world it can be a different matter, but that’s not our concern here.