Harriet Lerner, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Lawrence, Kansas, and the award-winning author of 12 books including The Dance of Anger and Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. HarrietLerner.com
At some point, each of us is going to hurt another person with our words or actions. Giving an apology allows us to repair the damage—assuming that we do it right. But many of us don’t do it right. And a poor apology—or no apology at all—can add insult to injury.
Here are common mistakes people make when apologizing and what to do instead…
Mistake: Avoiding making an apology. We may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about what happened and avoid the individual rather than have to face him/her.
Example: Sally borrowed a serving dish from her neighbor and forgot to return it. Three months later, when the neighbor left a voice message asking about it, Sally left the dish on the neighbor’s front porch. Although she returned the dish, she couldn’t bring herself to offer an apology.
Better: Sally returns the dish and says, either personally or in a note, “I’m sorry I kept your dish for such a long time. You were kind enough to lend it to me. I should have gotten it back to you the very next day.”
Mistake: Adding a “but” in your apology. This little word will undo the sincerity of any apology and almost always signals a rationalization, excuse or criticism.
Example: Mina corrected her husband’s stories in front of other guests at a dinner party. Later, when faced with her husband’s anger, Mina said, “I’m sorry I did that, but it’s hard for me to sit there silently when you don’t have your facts straight.”
Better: “I’m sorry that I corrected your stories at the party. It was wrong. You’ve told me before that you don’t want me to do that, and there is no excuse for forgetting. I want you to know that it won’t happen again.”
Mistake: Apologizing with words alone when a reparation is due. Sometimes, to be sincere, the words “I’m sorry” have to be backed by a reparative action.
Example: Mark spilled red wine on his friend’s carpet and was effusive in his apologies. His host said not to worry about it, so it didn’t occur to Mark to offer to pay the cleaning bill.
Better: “I’m so sorry I spilled my wine. Please let me know what it costs to remove the stain. I insist on reimbursing you.” If the friend refuses this offer, Mark still can do something special for her such as sending flowers or taking her out to lunch.
Mistake: Focusing on the other person’s feelings and reactions rather than your own behavior. A common way we ruin an apology is to say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Example: “I’m sorry that the joke I told at the meeting made you upset.” The problem with that—there is no accountability. You’re saying, in effect, “I’m sorry that you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior.”
Better: “I’m sorry I told that sexist joke at the office party. It was wrong and out of line. I feel bad that I was so insensitive.” A true apology focuses on your own behavior and not on the other person’s response.
Mistake: Expecting forgiveness. It’s only natural that we want our apology to lead to forgiveness, but pushing for forgiveness can make the hurt person feel wronged all over again.
Example: Ann was furious with her brother for arriving a half hour late to her wedding. He said that he was very sorry and that he had lost track of time—and then pressed her to forgive him. When Ann said that she didn’t forgive him, Alan got mad at her as if she were at fault.
Better: “Ann, I’m so sorry that I came late to your wedding. I feel terrible that I wasn’t on time for the most important day of your life. There is no excuse. I understand that what I did was serious and that you may stay angry for a long time.”
Mistake: Apologizing as a quick way out. Sometimes an apology requires a long-term effort rather than a simple “I’m sorry.” To heal, the hurt party needs us to really “get it”—to validate and care about his/her feelings and to carry some of the pain we’ve caused. This requires us to put aside our defensiveness and listen with an open heart to the essence of what the other person is trying to tell us. Don’t use the apology as a way to muzzle the other person or silence his anger.
Example: Rick said to his wife, Molly, “I told you a hundred times that I was sorry about my affair. It’s time you stopped bringing it up.”
Better: “Molly, I am so sorry for the pain I caused you with the affair. I am always here to listen whenever you need to talk. I want you to know that I often think about how I betrayed you and hurt our marriage.” No apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and carried some of the pain—even if it takes a long time.
Mistake: Overapologizing. Offering “I’m sorrys” again and again can create distance, interrupt the normal flow of conversation and irritate those around us who have to stop and reassure us—“No, really, it’s fine.”
Better: If you’re prone to voicing an endless stream of sorrys, tone it down. If you have inconvenienced your friend by misplacing your car keys and needing a ride home, don’t apologize numerous times. One sincere apology usually is enough.