The Right Way to Say You're Wrong

 By Caitlin Nelson, AMFT

By Caitlin Nelson, AMFT

Saying “I’m sorry” seems so simple and yet, it doesn’t always feel that way. More often than not, it is connected to immense difficulty and feelings of dread. It is much easier for us to justify why we don’t need to apologize, why the other person is at fault, and why we should actually be the one receiving the apology. The problem with this mindset is that it leaves no room for personal accountability, which is a necessity for engaging in a meaningful relationship. Genuine apologies offer reconciliation and reconnection after a hurt has impacted the relationship. Our ability to take ownership of how we have hurt someone and offer an apology addressing that hurt, without needing to justify our behavior, allows us to truly repair our relationships. Now, how can we make sure we are doing that?

In Harriet Lerner’s new book, “Why Won’t You Apologize,” she goes into great detail about the do’s and don’ts of a genuine apology. There are many ways we can mess up an apology, even when we are truly trying. Lerner explains them as follows:

1.     Using the word “but”

This is a very common add-on and while it attempts to explain our behavior and why it makes sense given the situation, it also completely negates our apology.

Example: I’m sorry I was rude, but you weren’t listening to me.

Try Instead: I’m sorry I was rude. That was uncalled for and I will be more respectful next time.

2.     Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way”

This pseudo-apology shifts the focus from your actions to the other person’s response. It is not taking accountability for your part in the interaction, and places the blame on the other person.

Example: I’m sorry you felt embarrassed when I pointed out your mistake at the party.

Try Instead: I’m sorry I pointed out your mistake at the party. That was not thoughtful of me and I won’t do it again.

3.     Saying, “I’m sorry if…”

The word “if” implies the other person needs to rethink their response and can often seem condescending. It again skirts away from taking responsibility for our actions.

Example: I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.

Try Instead: What I said was offensive. I’m sorry I was insensitive and I will be more mindful moving forward.

4.     Confusing what needs to be apologized for

This is a common occurrence in relationships where people are held responsible for the other person’s feelings and behaviors, rather than their own.

Example: I’m sorry for giving you a headache.

Try Instead: I’m sorry for not turning down the TV when I knew you had a headache.

5.     Asking for forgiveness too soon

Often when we work up the nerve to apologize, we feel the need to know that we are forgiven. This is a normal feeling. We want to know that the relationship has been restored. But when we ask for forgiveness too soon after an apology, we take away the space for the other person to fully process our apology, as well as the emotional hurt they are experiencing. This can make the other person feel rushed and sometimes even hurt again.

Example: I’m sorry I made a decision about our finances without including you. I know we’ve talked about that before. Forgive me?

Try Instead: I’m sorry I made a decision about our finances without including you. I know when I do that I hurt you and we’ve talked about that before. I understand if it takes some time for you to not be upset with me anymore. Let me know if there is anything I can do.

6.     Being intrusive with our need to apologize

This is when we continue trying to apologize before the other person is ready to hear from us. It often occurs with bigger betrayals and involves the hurt person drawing clear boundaries around no further communication. When we become intrusive with apologizing, we place our need to soothe our own anxiety about hurting someone above actually soothing the person we hurt.

Example: I know you said you didn’t want to talk to me anymore, but I need to know we’re ok; I’m sorry.

Try Instead: Not apologizing after the other person has made it clear they are not ready to communicate.

Lerner reminds us that an apology is us taking responsibility for our actions and soothing the other person’s hurt. It is not the time to discuss our grievances or make it about our pain. There will always be another time to bring those topics up. She challenges us to truly listen to someone when they bring us their pain, even when faced with things that are hard to hear. To do this, she recommends recognizing our defensiveness, soothing ourselves with deep breathing, asking questions when we don’t understand, refraining from debating facts and letting the hurt party know we hear them.

Lerner emphasizes the importance of truly listening to someone, as an apology will not be as effective if we haven’t understood the pain we have caused. Lerner also challenges us to accept the olive branch that is an apology when we have been the ones hurt. A genuine apology is a bid for connection, and when executed well and received well, it begins the healing process necessary to strengthen relationships.

Try to become more aware of how you apologize and where you need to tweak. My guess is, the better you become at apologizing, the more likely you will begin receiving genuine apologies in return, further cultivating positive change in your relationship.