The Fine Art of a Sincere Apology

Post written by Warren. Follow him on Twitter.

Learn how to apologize the right way.

Learn how to apologize the right way.

When an offense has damaged the relationship between two people, it’s often the case that only an apology will start the process of repair.  Unfortunately, there are times when the simple words “I’m sorry” can be among the most difficult to utter.

As easy as it should be to make an apology, it’s actually a daunting challenge for many of us to use those two simple words.

Why Is It So Difficult to Apologize?

Making an apology brings with it an acceptance of wrongdoing, and most people don’t like to admit that they’ve made a mistake or done something wrong.  Pride may stand in the way of admitting wrongdoing.

We may also feel uncomfortable about making an apology since it can bring a feeling of vulnerability.  We often don’t know if our apology will be accepted or rejected, and whether we’ll end up being hurt ourselves while trying to apologize.  Also, a meaningful apology should carry with it the promise that we’ll do our best not to make the same mistake again.

Very often, this promise is something we’re not sure that we can live up to.

Apologies can fall into several categories…

An apology may be strategic, meaning the person making the apology feels there’s something to be gained by apologizing.  An apology can also be defensive, offered up as a way of countering an accusation of wrongdoing. An apology can even be forced.  Haven’t we all had the childhood experience of being required by a teacher or parent to make an apology?  The motivation of each of these types of apologies is usually insincere.  None of these apologies have the impact of a sincere apology that’s delivered from the heart.

When Is An Apology Needed?

The general rule is that an apology is in order when we have done wrong to another, either intentionally or unintentionally, and the wronged person expects an apology.  Problems can arise because the interpretation of have done wrong to another can be highly subjective.  An altercation may leave both parties feeling hurt and wronged, and it’s unclear which person should be doing the apologizing.  Therefore there really is no definite rule for when an apology is required.  An awareness of the expectations of other people can help decide when an apology should be made.

Knowing when a sincere apology is required and being able to effectively deliver it aren’t skills that most of us are born with.

In order to be taken seriously, an apology must convey an acceptance of responsibility and a feeling of regret.  Formulating and delivering a sincere apology is a skill that requires practice.    Those who become highly proficient in this skill have mastered the art of the apology and will enjoy positive relationships with the people around them.

Human relationship experts agree that a sincere apology has three components:

  1. The offense must be acknowledged.
  2. Regret for the offense must be expressed.
  3. Responsibility for the offense must be accepted and conveyed.

When an apology expresses these three components, the person who receives the apology is given a clear understanding that the nature of the offense is understood and that the person who is apologizing will try not to let it happen again.  When delivering an apology, it’s important to be careful about the choice of words and the tone.  Attempting to gloss over the offense or hide behind excuses will increase the chances of the apology being rejected and causing even more damage to the relationship.

Benefits of a Sincere Apology

The act of sincere apology can be beneficial to both the giver and the receiver.  In her book The Power of an Apology, psychotherapist Beverly Engel mentions these benefits than can be realized by the receiver of an apology:

  • Emotional healing can take place following an apology.
  • The offender will no longer be perceived as a threat.
  • The person who was offended can feel better about forgiving the offender.
  • The receiver of an apology can let go of anger and move forward.  Accepting an apology allows the person who’s been wronged to let go of the past and avoid adopting a victim mentality.

Many people are embarrassed when they’re in the wrong.  Their pride might be hurt and they may react with denial or by blaming the person they’ve offended.  The person who’s in the wrong may be experiencing anger.  If these feelings can be put aside, Engels lists these benefits to the person making the apology:

  • The offender can be relieved of any lingering guilt.
  • Making an apology is a humbling act that can combat arrogance.
  • An apology is an opportunity for growth.  The person making the apology can gain awareness and sensitivity.
  • Many times an offense is known by other people and their opinion of the offender has been compromised.  Making an apology is the best way to restore the good opinions of others.

There may be pride on both sides when an apology is needed.  In order for an apology to be successful, both the giver and receiver have to swallow their pride.  An apology can be a humbling experience for both parties.  Each person may feel vulnerable during the process, but with open communication and understanding on both sides, the relationship can return to a comfortable place.

The Power of a Sincere Apology

A sincere apology is a powerful tool for healing damaged relationships.  It can disarm a person who has been wronged, provide an opportunity for communication and open the door to healing.  Apologies that are insincere and delivered for reasons of strategy or under duress can do more harm than good.  You can’t control how your apology will be accepted, but if you do your best to make it sincere the odds are good that it will be accepted and that you’ll feel better as a result.

By practicing the art of the sincere apology, you’ll find that you really have nothing to lose by making an apology and everything to gain.

“Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.”
Margaret Lee Runbeck

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Posted on September 14, 2009

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