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Elements of an effective apology

Apologies are a common and often unavoidable part of our communication in our personal and professional lives and can serve to either repair or worsen the damage to an already hurting relationship. As I support people in improving their relationships, I often see them struggling with this area – the person giving the apology is frustrated that it wasn’t accepted even though it was sincere and the person receiving the apology feels hurt that it just didn’t feel honest or meaningful.
So in the process of teaching effective communication, I also educate them about the essential elements of an effective apology. While every individual will have their personal style, it can be useful keep the below points in mind when apologising. This would apply across different personal and professional relationships but for simplicity I have written this with reference to couples.
1. LISTEN
The most important element of all communication is deep listening and it is essential in beginning the healing here as well so - pay attention, be present, be kind, be open and remember that the opposite person’s anger is likely stemming from hurt. Lower your barriers and allow yourself to be transparent and vulnerable so your sincerity can break through their defences and reach them. Let your partner express themselves fully and listen respectfully, attentively and without protest. Listen beyond the words being spoken to understand the feelings and needs being expressed.
2. INTROSPECT
Please take time to reflect on whether you genuinely are sorry, and if your answer is yes, they why so. This introspection will allow your apology to be authentic and heartfelt rather than a formality. Do not use this moment to settles old scores or be vengeful; to make your partner understand how you feel when they wrong you or to show them their part in the problem. Many times both parties contribute to a problem, but do not use your apology as a platform to discuss that – it will sully it and defeat the purpose. Also remember that you’re not doing your partner a favour by obliging them with an apology (for e.g. “I said sorry, what more do you want?”). It’s not a power struggle and the respect you give is the respect you will likely receive. A sincere apology reflects you as being someone who has courage and humility enough to own up to a mistake and try to fix it.
3. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY & DON’T JUSTIFY
Take full responsibility as you show remorse and admit that you messed up – this takes the blame off the injured party and can help them put their defensive shields down and be willing to listen. Avoid explaining the reasons behind your behaviour unless your partner asks you as it often gets expressed as “yes, but” which can sound like a justification for the mistake – in effect diminishing your sense of responsibility towards it. This can feel like you are shifting the blame onto others or to circumstances. If your partner does seek to understand why you did what you did, mention the factual reasons without defending yourself, remembering that irrespective of the reason, you’re still responsible for the hurt that was caused.
4. BE SPECIFIC
The word “sorry” is overused and can feel empty and meaningless as it doesn’t convey what you’re actually sorry for. So be specific – mention what was the mistake that you did and why you think it was wrong. Using ‘I statements’ can be helpful here. Acknowledge and apologise for the damage and hurt that was caused by your actions and how it may have impacted your partner by way of practical inconveniences or emotional hurt and stress.
5. BE EMPATHIC
Reflect empathy – take a moment to place yourself in your partner’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective. Share how you would have felt if you were in their place and validate their feelings. This can engender feelings of being heard and understood and improve the sense of connection and closeness.
6. REPAIR
Ask how you can make it better – offer and be open to suggestions to repair some of the damage that was done. While things cannot usually be undone, be proactive in your efforts to make it better in any possible way. This further reflects your taking ownership of the issue, being engaged and available to help and caring about the impact this has had.
7. PLAN AHEAD
Giving assurance that the mistake will not be repeated in the future is essential, however it’s often a promise which cannot be fulfilled as there is no strategy. Simply having the honest intention of not repeating the mistake is insufficient as I’m pretty sure you did not intentionally want to commit this mistake in the first place. So you need to know and mention what steps you are going to take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This makes your apology much more concrete and can help outline practical solutions and safeguards.
8. FOLLOW THROUGH!
The most important element for the 2 points mentioned above – you must follow through, so be sure to only commit to what you think you would actually be able to deliver otherwise it can add to the injury. Commitments can either build or break trust depending on how consistently you follow through.
9. DON’T DEMAND FORGIVENESS
Please feel free request for it but remember that your partner doesn’t owe it to you. They may or may not be in the space to forgive you yet and that’s okay – they have the right to do so at their own pace. Just because you have offered a sincere apology, does not mean that it will instantly heal all wounds. Remembering that forgiveness is their prerogative is a sign of respect and empathy for their feelings and your patience will be a sign of your support, understanding and perseverance. So manage your expectations regarding the outcome of your apology to avoid disappointment or frustration.
10. OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH
Such moments can provide opportunity to build trust and reliability, express respect and care for your partner, show that you value the relationship more than your ego and that you are willing to work through the tough spots because your partner, their feelings and what you have together are important to you. It is also an opportunity to elicit feedback, understand each other better, refine conflict resolutions skills, set the precedent for honest authentic communication and grow in your relationship.
I hope the next time you apologise to someone, it’s an effective one!