Three Keys to a Good Apology
Blog entry by Dan McMillan
We all have been hurt. Someone has said or done something that injured us. They say they’re sorry, yet for some reason we don’t feel better.
Equally, we have all hurt others and attempted to repair that hurt. You’re sorry, really, but the apology doesn’t seem to land or work.
During my time as a therapist, particularly as a couples’ therapist, I have witnessed and discussed many apologies. I’ve come to learn what works and what doesn’t in a good apology. Below are the three key steps I believe to be necessary in a good apology. Following these steps allows both parties the best chance of moving forward and feeling better.
When you’re sorry, say it and mean it. Genuinely acknowledge the hurt that you caused the other person through your words, actions or inactions. Let them know that you recognize where you went wrong and sincerely feel bad about it. But don’t stop here. Many people believe this is the end of the apology but it’s not.
Listen. The other person will now likely take your apology as an opening to have their hurt seen. They will want to expand on your words to feel heard and be validated. They need to express their pain, anger, and sadness directly to you. Even if you just said they exact same thing in your initial apology, they will still need to express themselves as part of their process. Listen curiously and genuinely, putting aside your need to defend. Reflect back what you have heard to show that you were listening, asking curious, non-defensive questions to expand. Make sure you hear and understand their hurt fully before you move on.
*Note: To do this step effectively put away your defensiveness. Even if you too were hurt, allow yourself to listen openly, then after step 3, ask your partner to do the same.
Repeat step 1, now with the better understanding you now have. Let them know you get it and, again, are genuinely upset that you have hurt them. This will likely be a good time to gently offer your own context of what happened. Be cautious not to misuse or be misunderstood as excusing your actions. However it does matter that you now outlined the factors that contributed to your hurtful actions. Do this by honouring the other’s pain as legitimate, share your own regret from your actions, then speak to the reasons why you did what you did. This is often misunderstood or mis-timed, but doing so in a gentle manner at the appropriate time can be helpful to both people’s healing. The hurt person wants to understand why you did what you did, just not before they are heard and understood. You probably have a need to better explain yourself as well, to be understood better and not be seen as a “bad guy”. This can be useful if timed appropriately, as long as you first hear and understand the other’s pain before explaining it away. If however, you find that your own explanation shuts down your listening, the apology likely won’t go very well.
These 3 steps, while simple, are not always easy. I encourage you to give them a try the next time you need to make amends with someone you care about; it may go a long way.
To learn more see please see this video further outlining the three keys to a good apology:
Article by: Dan McMillan, M.Ed., R. Psych.
Daniel is a registered psychologist working out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He counsels individuals and couples in the areas of mental health, relationship, trauma, and men’s mental health issues.