I want to start by asking you to literally stop right now, reflect, and answer this question honestly:
When is the last time you gave a heartfelt apology?
Don’t count times you gave an apology because you wanted something in return, or because you wanted to avoid negative fallout. Pinpoint in your mind the last time you truly felt you had wronged someone.
You intentionally hurt someone.
You ran roughshod over them to assert yourself when things didn’t go your way.
You were rude or harsh with someone, or you took your frustration out on them when they were not to blame.
You did what was best for you, without considering how someone else felt or how your actions would affect them.
You talked negatively about someone, causing others to ridicule or mistrust them.
And you knew it. You knew you were in the wrong. But at some point afterward, you experienced real remorse. You just felt lousy about it – so much so that you went back and offered a sincere apology without a single excuse.
When was the last time? To whom did you apologize? Was it a family member? A friend? A co-worker or boss? A student? A server at a restaurant? A customer care or tech support person you were on the phone with?
If it was so long ago that the details are foggy – or if you can’t remember a specific time at all – ask yourself, What does that say about me? As far as I can see, there are only two things it could mean:
1. You are an anomaly. You are close to perfect and never blow it with other people, and therefore don’t really ever have the need to apologize.
2. You aren’t apologizing enough.
When is the last time you gave a heartfelt apology? Click To Tweet
I got to thinking about all of this because I recently had a falling out with a friend over a string of broken promises and unmet expectations on his end. Things continued in a downward spiral until he wound up leaving a note in my mailbox that was the equivalent of a teenage break-up letter. In it, he used words like “toxic relationship” and heavily implied that I was the problem, not him: that if I were a good friend, I would have understood his life and not held him to his word or his commitments.
In this situation, many people would have rushed to apologize, even if they truly didn’t feel they had done anything wrong. I’m not one of those people. Do I sound arrogant? Condescending? I’m really not.
To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d been patient and never unkind to him. I even offered a solution to the problem that would have freed him of his obligations at a personal cost to myself. But the reason I am able to know when an apology is due – and when one isn’t (even if it means that someone is mad about it) – is that I do keep tabs on asking myself the same question I posed to you above: When is the last time I sincerely apologized to someone?
If I ask myself that question and I can’t recall a very recent time, I have to stop and consider that maybe I’m out of practice. Maybe I’ve let my pride grow out of control. Maybe I can’t admit when I am wrong, even when I am.
However, if I can readily think of a few recent times where I did apologize, especially in ways that caused me to feel a little awkward and embarrassed, then I know I’m doing OK. My sensitivity to when I am wrong is intact.
Now that we’ve got a pulse on things, how and when do you apologize? I think there is a lot of confusion about this in our modern society.
From the time children are able to utter the words, we make them say they are sorry:
“Tell Timmy you’re sorry for throwing the block at his face!”
“Tell grandma you’re sorry for pinching her!”
“Tell the cat you’re sorry for pulling its tail!”
Of course, these mandates are given with a scowl of disapproval and a stern tone that implies “. . . or else.” And so, in the name of proper manners and with the best of intentions, we teach our tots to say what they do not mean. Over time, the word “sorry” begins to collect other meanings:
“Stop being mad at me.”
“Do what I want you to do.”
“Don’t leave me.”
As wonderful and rich as our language is, I recommend revitalizing the words “I’m sorry” by reserving them for times when you mean precisely that. In other words, I recommend that we learn to apologize less and mean it more.Apologize less and mean it more. Click To Tweet
Secondary meanings for “I’m sorry” are common among both people users and people pleasers alike. The former mean “let me take advantage of you one more time,” while the latter mean “please don’t stop liking me.” Both overuse the phrase. Neither is communicating honestly.
Some good people argue that it would be best to apologize even when you do not believe you are in the wrong, for the sake of “being the bigger person” and keeping the peace. In this case, “I’m sorry” would seem to mean “I care about you, and I’m willing to take the hit so we can get along.” I’ve changed my views on many things over the years. This is one area in which I have not. I still believe that an apology should only be made with careful consideration, after some honest self-reflection, and under specific circumstance. This is the only way for the words to reflect true depth of meaning.
These are the guidelines I follow when it comes to making apologies:
1. Only apologize when I accept responsibility for a wrong done (whether known to the other person or not).
2. Consider how my actions were or may have been hurtful and express this.
3. Name the offense specifically when apologizing.
4. Verbally commit to a change of action or attitude for the next time a similar situation arises.
5. Ask the other person to forgive me.
Let’s see how this might look when applied to a few different situations.
Example Scenario #1:
A big advertising campaign is due to be presented Friday, but your part is done and submitted plenty ahead of time. To celebrate, you make plans to have dinner out with your wife Thursday night.
Midday Thursday, you are informed that another department made some significant improvements and changes to the campaign, which will now necessitate that your contributions be entirely reworked. It’s going to be a late night. You call your wife to cancel dinner plans. Do you apologize?
If we hold it up to the guidelines I suggest above, we would start by asking, “Do I accept responsibility for a wrong done here?” Given these circumstances, I would say no. Likewise, we cannot name the specific offense for which we are taking responsibility, nor can we commit to doing anything differently should a similar situation occur in the future. So, in this case, an apology is not what is called for. I won’t stand on a hill and shout that “I’m sorry, honey, I have to cancel our plans tonight” is the worst thing you could say. Yet I still firmly believe that, in the scope of life, apologies will mean more if we make them less.
What might we say in this case, then? We can certainly empathize with how this change might be hurtful or disappointing, without taking responsibility for having caused that hurt or disappointment: “I know it stinks, honey. We both were really looking forward to our date. Tomorrow, one way or another, this presentation will be over. Why don’t we go then?”
Example Scenario #2:
New scene. Your newborn has been wailing for more than an hour, while your frustrated wife has tried to sooth him and get him to sleep. Finally, he’s drifted off and your wife has laid him in his crib. You’re now helping your wife wash the pots and pans from dinner. She passes you a wet pan to dry, and it slips from your hands, clanging to the floor. A high-pitched shriek emanates from the baby’s room, and your wife stares at the ceiling, exasperated. Do you apologize?
It’s clear that the clanging pan woke the baby, and you were the last one to touch it. However, it was not a wrong. The fact that it happened to wake the baby does not somehow make it one. Accidents happen. But let’s say that you were attempting to use the guidelines from this chapter and decided, “Well, I dropped it, so I’ll take responsibility.” Certainly, we can see how the “offense” negatively affected the baby and your wife. It would seem a little weird to specifically name the offense (“I dropped the pan”), but I suppose we could do that, too. But what about a plan of action for the next time? Will being more careful prevent wet items from slipping in the future? Were you truly not being careful? Or was it just “one of those things”? I think this is where the need for an apology gets ruled out here.
So, what could you say instead? Try, “Oh no! Honey, I feel awful! You worked so hard to get him to sleep. Do you want me to finish the dishes? Or would you rather have me try to get him back to sleep?”
Example Scenario #3:
One more scenario. Your friend Brad shared something with you in strict confidence. Later, your friend Sean asks what’s up with Brad, because he’s noticed that Brad has been acting funny. You say to Sean, “Brad told me what’s up and asked me not to tell anyone. If I tell you, you have to promise me that you will keep it to yourself.” Sean promises, of course (who doesn’t, when faced with the prospect of getting good dirt?), and you tell him.
The next day, Brad texts you: “Thanks for keeping my personal life to yourself loser.”
You text him back — “???” — and receive Brad’s reply: “Figure it out.”
Do you apologize?
There is no question that you were in the wrong here. And it really doesn’t matter how Brad found out. So going to Sean and trying to track down who said what to whom isn’t the point. You were wrong. Broken trust is certainly hurtful to a relationship. You know exactly what you did and when. Can you sincerely commit to a change of action in the future? Can you ask Brad to forgive you? If so, then your apology may sound like this:
“Hey, Brad. I screwed up. You asked me to keep that information to myself . . . and I didn’t. I told Sean. That was wrong. Now I’ve embarrassed you and damaged your trust in me. I’m really sorry. I will understand if you don’t want to confide in me again; but if you do, I will prove that I can keep my mouth shut. Will you forgive me?”
A few more thoughts on apologies.
Whenever possible, apologize in person, not through email, text or relaying a message through another person. Those are, for the most part, cop-outs. Have the character and decency to feel uncomfortable for a few minutes and deliver the apology face to face.
This is important, so pay close attention: true apologies do not contain an “if.” It does not matter “if” the other person is sorry, too, even if you were both wrong. Being truly sorry means that you realize what you did was wrong, regardless of whether anyone else was wrong or willing to admit the same.
In a different sense of “if,” many people tend to phrase apologies as, “I’m sorry if you were offended, but. . .” This is not an apology. It is actually nothing more than a clever rewording of “You should be sorry for being so sensitive; it’s a wonder that anyone can speak to you at all.” And that is how it is generally received.True apologies do not contain an 'if.' Click To Tweet
Remember that the first rule of thumb here is an acceptance of your own wrongdoing, regardless of the other person’s actions or reactions to what you did. In cases where you truly do not feel you were wrong, but feel the urge to apologize, try something like this instead: “I see how hurt you are. Please believe that it was not my intention to hurt you. Had I known it would affect you this way, I probably would have done it differently. I didn’t know at the time, but I do now.”
Even when you do genuinely apologize, the other person may or may not express forgiveness for you at that time. They may never forgive you. They may or may not trust you again. An apology is not a means to an end, given in order to regain your relational standing or to get someone to stop being angry with you. It is a sincere realization and admission that you were wrong, that you hurt someone, and that you intend to change.An apology is not a means to an end. It is a sincere realization and admission that you were wrong. Click To Tweet
At the very least, carefully considering and redefining “I’m sorry” will cause your apologies to mean something again.