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Thoughts On How to Apologize Well

Thoughts On How to Apologize Well
  • On December 26, 2013

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The new year is nearly upon us, and it’s a convenient time to reflect on what changes we might want to make in our lives. I’m not one for resolutions. Changing behaviors is difficult and often fraught with failure if we don’t go at it the right way. I think of behavior changes as top-down solutions. Not always a bad idea, but sometimes we need to go bottom-up.

All that said, I have a few things I want to focus on in the upcoming 12 months. One of them is making good apologies.

To look at the anatomy of a good apology, we need to look at a basic communication tool: the “I feel” statement.

I feel…

When you…

Because (not always needed, but sometimes helpful)…

In the future, I would prefer/like/appreciate…

This can be a helpful way to frame a difficult conversation without seeming as though you’re blaming another person for your feelings. A person can do things that create feelings in you, but a person cannot “make” you feel anything. Our reactions are always very personal and particular. All the same, sometimes people need to hear from you.

I’ve learned (praised be the name of Brene Brown) that the thing that extinguishes shame best is empathy. When I hurt someone, I feel ashamed. Whether I meant to hurt them or not is irrelevant. Few of us ever intend to be hurtful, and when we do it’s usually a result of our own deep pain lashing back out. I think the reason I can be bad at apologies is because I’m so ashamed of the hurt, my own and the other person’s, that I often become defensive.

My current apologies aren’t terrible, but they could be better. I make excuses like not having time, or being in a bad mood. I try to offload responsibility too often, blaming other things rather than just fessing up. As a bonus, my anxiety disorder often manifests as extreme irritability. A crowded mall or a late arrival can make me anxious and therefore snappy and rude. How nice for the people I love, huh?

My plan for the upcoming year is to work on turning the “I feel” statement on its head. I want to look at phrasing my apologies thusly:

I hear that you feel…

When I…


In the future, I will…

Bell reminded me of another item of a good apology. Remember that when we apologize, we’re addressing a wrong done to another. Therefore, it is not about us. If we focus on apologizing to assuage our guilt we’re off track. Guilt can be a good indicator we need to apologize but easing guilt cannot be the reason for the apology. Basically, if I’m making the apology about me and my feelings, I’m doing it wrong.

I also plan to wait until I really know what I’m apologizing for, and to do so in person whenever possible. Communication is a lot about body language. If I apologize when I’m still upset, or they can’t see me at all, I can do more harm than good.

In all, I find that the people who care about us will give us a lot more leeway than we think. They know we care, and we’re not out to hurt them. If we screw things up somehow, we’re only human and we can make it up. Apologies at their hearts are about trust. Trust your people to be able to tolerate your imperfections, and to be abundant in forgiveness. And then do the same for them. If we live like that, I believe we can improve the entire world. (Don’t tell anyone how optimistic I am about humanity, it might ruin my sarcastic image.)

I wish you all a peaceful 2014 filled with less dramaz and more love. And butts.



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