October 6, 2020  |  David R. Novak

Apologizing & Communicating Forgiveness

Apologizing & Communicating Forgiveness

A true measure of person is whether they can apologize or not.

If someone genuinely has wronged you — or acted like an asshole — and they can’t or don’t apologize, beware. It’s a giant, swaying red flag.

Everyone has to apologize from time to time. (Or likely should apologize, anyways.) But how best to apologize? Is there one ideal way? Or certain steps that should be followed? My answers are: Let’s talk about it, probably not, and not exactly.

Better apologies are likely to result in stronger relationships. This is interesting given that the need for apologies only arise from moments of pain, fault, sorrow, shame, hurt, and so forth.

Good apologies help relationships grow back stronger.

Rather than thinking about “steps” per se — generally not a good mindset for communication as it’s never one size fits all — it’s more useful to know the parts of a good apology rather than following a formula.

Why apologies? Well, they’re important for one, and two, an apology is a quite pure form of communication in my view. Good apologies are vulnerable and exposed. You admit fault and attempt to assuage guilt. It’s raw and pure — the good ones anyways. Everyone fucks up. Everyone has hurt another person. Intentional or accidental doesn’t much matter. Intent, as you’ll recall, doesn’t absolve you from the communication outcomes.

Apologizing is a skill though it is profane and grotesque to commodify it as such. It *is* possible to give a good apology and it’s possible to do a bad one. Apologies can go better and they can go worse. And thoughtfulness about how to apologize will surely improve your communication outcomes.

When to apologize? Plenty of situations call for apologies. Few of us probably apologize enough, frankly. Easy answer is when you’ve done something wrong or something that hurts someone else, if you’ve made a mistake, or if you’re thoughtless towards another person, or if you’ve engaged in unacceptable behavior. This behavior could be something you did or a behavior you engaged in such as yelling.

Apologies, at their core, are an opportunity to discuss the ground rules of your relationship without doing so explicitly. Apologies are about what is and is not acceptable within the context of your relationship. Apologies are an opportunity to restore dignity and establish integrity through taking responsibility for your behavior.

Apologies take courage. Admitting fault is hard and makes you vulnerable. (This is why lawyers and insurance companies don’t like apologies.) But between people, apologies can expose you to attack or blame which is probably why many people hesitate to apologize when they might need to. Vulnerability is fear-inducing.

Good Apologies

I don’t like thinking about communication activities in “steps” as others might do when it comes to something like an apology. Think of a good apology more in terms of a checklist similar to a shopping list. When you have a shopping list, you don’t have to get everything in order, but if you leave the story with all your grocery items, the trip was successful. Same with apologies. You don’t have to know the order of the words or exactly what to say, but tick these boxes, and your apology is likely to succeed.

There are caution points, however.

Real life apologies are — and IRL communication is — rambling and stumbling and even sometimes awkward. Perfect communication is just an idea in your head, remember?! Communication is never perfect. Any given apology might go well and it might not. You don’t know, and can’t predict, other people’s behavior.

Luckily for many of us, other humans are generally forgiving.

A caution as we go forth: good apologies cannot be faked. Fake apologies will be sniffed out.

Express Remorse. Every apology needs to be — up front and foremost — an apology. You have to say the words “I’m sorry.” or “I apologize.” No qualifications. You should probably say what what you’re sorry for. Not “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Or, “I apologize if that’s what you interpreted.” No “but you did...” or any of it. No qualifications.

“I’m sorry for how I acted.” There are a thousand ways to say it and meet good apology criteria.

You need to be sincere and authentic. Also, timeliness is important. Apologizing sooner rather than later, is generally better. Eventually, is usually fine, but you shouldn’t wait too long if you’re in the wrong.

Take Responsibility. Admit responsibility for your actions or behavior and acknowledge whatever it was that you did. You have to empathize and show you have a clue about how you made them feel.

For example: "I know that I hurt your feelings yesterday when I snapped at you. I'm sure this embarrassed you, especially since everyone else on the team was there. I was wrong to treat you like that."

Context and your relationship will change how you take responsibility, but taking responsibility is a key. “There’s no excuse for how I acted. I shouldn’t talk to you like that.”

Promise It Won't Happen Again. And deliver on that promise. Good apologies will often address what you will do differently in the future or what you’ll do to remedy the situation. Then, you need to follow through. Be specific about what you’ll do different. This is an important way to rebuild trust. And if you don’t have trust, you can’t have much of anything.

Caution: Token gestures, empty gestures, or false promises will do more harm than good. Also, be warned that apologies can lose their potency over time. Repeated apologies for the same thing over and over will eventually fall on deaf ears.

Make Amends. Making amends is taking action — if possible — to make the situation right. “If I can make it up to you, please just ask.” or “Please tell me what you’d like me to do and I’ll do it.”

Apologies are situational and context-dependent, and you always have options to say or do what you want, but a good apologies make amends if the situation allows.

We can learn how to apologize. You can get better at it. How? For example, you can read something like this article. Hopefully you’ve learned something. Next time you have to apologize, you can try a new approach and see if your outcomes improve. You can resolve yourself to be more honest and more contrite. This will almost force a better apology out of you if you stay true to your pledge. You can also be observant and watch someone else apologize. Other people’s behavior can serve as both a model of good behavior as an example of what *not* to do.

Words of Caution

There are things to be cautious about when it comes to apologies and apologizing as you may have noticed me pointing out. But there is more to consider than even just these big things that will doom your apology to fail.

You can apologize too much or too often or for things that aren’t your fault. This can be a problem too. Apologies can come off as innocuous and meaningless, but apologizing can be to your social detriment. There are plenty of times in life when you need to stand up for what you did and not apologize when an apology might be expected.

Bullshit apologies will be sniffed out. Self-serving, defensive attempts at apology can, and likely will, blow up in your face.

While not easy to do well, good apologies are necessary and will help you build better relationships. Nobody like to apologize but it’s something we have to all do. If we have to do it, it’s worth thinking about how to do it better.

Good Communication | Relationships