Aileen Fullchange, Ph.D.
With a global pandemic and the national racial reckoning that this country is going through, it is no surprise that some of us may be experiencing more tension and maybe even ruptures in our relationships. This is why it's important to learn how to identify which relationships are worth repairing and then to do the repair work. One way to repair a rupture in a relationship is through apologizing. Yet, many of us have not learned how to do an apology well. Some of us never saw apologies modeled for us in our families. Or maybe we have been taught the "sorry, get over it" approach to apologies. I have seen countless times on elementary school playgrounds well-meaning adults telling children to simply "say sorry" and then expecting the children to "get over it." But an apology is much more than this. In fact, an apology, if done well, can strengthen a relationship. Dr. Christine Carter, author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less, breaks down the art of apologies step-by-step:
(1) a clear and complete acknowledgment of the offense
(2) a non-defensive explanation
(3) an expression of remorse
First, acknowledge your offense without mentioning what you were mad about. Say, “I’m sorry I called you selfish,” not, “I’m sorry I called you selfish, but you really do nothing to help out around here anymore.” For an apology to work, the offender needs to fully confess to the offensive action without hemming, hawing, or making excuses.
Second, offer an explanation if you want, especially if you truly didn’t intend to hurt the other person’s feelings or if the offense isn’t likely to reoccur. If you do choose to offer an explanation, again, remember that your apology needs to include an actual confession, and anything that makes it seem like you aren’t taking responsibility for your mistakes will nullify your apology. For example, “I know I called you a lazy jerk, but, look, everyone has a bad day sometimes, okay?" isn’t going to build trust in your relationship. But it could help to say, “I was annoyed and not thinking clearly, and I really regret saying that.”
Third, express genuine remorse, guilt, or humility that recognizes why your comment might have hurt the other person. This might look like something nonverbal (e.g. a look of empathy and remorse) or it might be verbal (e.g. "I feel badly that I hurt you. That's not how I want to treat you.")
Finally, good apologies often include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Perhaps you lean in for an apologetic smooch, a hug, or offer to help with something you know they need. A reparation is a peace offering.
For more on mastering the art of apologies, check out Brené Brown's podcast episode with psychologist Harriet Lerner, "I’m Sorry: How To Apologize & Why It Matters." And, remember, apologies are a skill to be learned. The more you practice, the better you'll get at it. And it's okay to not do it well at first.