How you apologize matters.
I am OK at apologizing. There have been many times when I did not communicate as clearly as someone with a degree in communication should be able to. When I was little, my mother used to remind me to say “why” I was sorry when apologizing. It was a scaffolding to ensure I was acknowledging that I regretted my actions. I never want to hurt anyone with my actions or words, but when I do, a quality apology is necessary.
I need to apologize, but I don’t know what to say
No two apologies are the same. There is not a cookie-cutter response that will always be successful. When you find yourself in a situation where you need to apologize, take time to reflect on how the other person feels.
Adam Maurer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor, recommends that good apologies begin with empathy.
“It is really common for someone who has hurt someone they care about to try and circumvent hearing how their actions or words affected another person,” Maurer said.
He recommends that folks review the “platinum rule” when preparing to apologize. You might be familiar with the golden rule; the idea is to treat others the way you want to be treated. Instead, the platinum rule says that you should treat others the way they want to be treated. It is important to acknowledge that all folks have different thoughts, feelings, and experiences in life that they bring to every conversation.
It can be hard to apologize for the hurt that you have caused. Two good steps in a positive direction are acknowledging what exactly you are apologizing for and doing so in a manner that the specific person would prefer.
When is the best time to apologize?
Unfortunately, there is not a perfect time to apologize. If you wait for the perfect time to appear, you may be waiting so long that the conversation becomes uncomfortable.
Maurer recommends that folks apologize quickly and often. Frequent apologies leave less time for negative narratives to develop in each other’s heads.
“There really is never a good time. When things are good, many people don’t want to rock the boat, and when people are fighting they often lack access to the best of their communication skills,” he said.
With your partner, it may be appropriate to set up a weekly meeting to discuss your relationship. It provides time for healing and communication, Maurer said.
“Do it when y’all are at your best, surround it with something you like, such as brunch,” he said.
“There really is never a good time. When things are good, many people don’t want to rock the boat, and when people are fighting they often lack access to the best of their communication skills.”— Adam Maurer
Maybe if I just ignore the problem, it will go away.
Stop right there. Although ignoring the problem might work out one in a million times, it does not solve any problems. Many folks have a lot of fear around confrontation. The fear of the unknown is real. You do not know how this person will respond to your apology.
“People are not perfect. Conflict is a part of loving someone. So, get good at it or hunker down for the chaos avoiding it will eventually bring,” Maurer said.
Maurer noted that conflict can make relationships stronger and is not inherently bad. Focusing on the positive aspects of conflict has made confronting difficult situations easier for me.
Is there an easier way to give better apologies?
In short, no. The internal processing required for quality apologies is not always going to be easy. If we do not take the time to work through our fears that pertain to conflict, they will not get any easier.
If online quizzes are your thing, you can check out Dr. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas’ 5 apology languages. You might be familiar with Chapman’s 5 Love Languages that have become very popular among couples. Chapman and Thomas outline the apology languages as, expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness. The languages focus on how you want someone to phrase their apology.
It is important to note that the apology and love languages can be very focused on heterosexual, cisgender couples. Additionally, the apology languages will not help you get past your fears of confrontation, but they might give you some tools to communicate about apologies.
Why should I put more effort into my apologies?
When I look back at the times when I received genuine, direct, and intentional apologies, I understand why mastering them is so important. Quality apologies help relationships grow, help folks move on, and help you grow. Creating your chosen community will undoubtedly require apologies along the way. No one is perfect at conflict, but you can develop better conflict management skills.
Header image illustrated by Leonor Carvalho