We hurt each other often. Rarely intentionally. Quite often it happens without even trying. We may not even notice when and how deeply we offended someone. Sometimes it is our poorly chosen words and actions. Sometimes we ignored or forgot people's wishes and requests, behaving in a way that seemed ‘Ok” to us, while being scary or offensive to another person. Some people may express their sense of hurt to us and request an apology, while others may pull away silently, feeling misunderstood and unsafe. The intentional and unintentional omissions, words and actions, are like splinters: they need to be removed to allow proper healing. Or it will just hurt more, ruining the very foundation of any relationship: sense of trust and safety.
Why say “sorry", besides the obvious — to be polite? Why to acknowledge verbally that you wronged someone? One big reason is for the safety and continuity of the relationship. When another person feels wronged, even though it seems that you both “moved on”, your counterparts may still fear that you did not understand that what has happened was wrong and painful to them. They are afraid that it may happen again. Without the explicit reassurance that it won't, they will not trust you as much as before, being wary that you may hurt them again.
What obstacles block an apology? Mostly, ignorance, shame, and pride. We tend to minimize other people’s sensibility, thinking “it is not a big deal”, and feeling that “it is over with" and "we all just should move on”. This hasty attitude not only does not allow healing, but it creates more hurt, making another person think: “Not only did you hurt me, but your don’t even care that you did! I bet you will do it again to me or others I care about”.
Except the obvious, “ignore” and “say nothing”, it is important to understand these additional examples of the “non-apology apology”:
“I am sorry you feel this way!” — It may sound that you have done nothing wrong, while the other person is being silly and overly sensitive.
“It kind of generally doesn’t happen…” — It may sound that you are thinking that one time hurting someone is absolutely fine, that their emotions and preferences are not important of acknowledgement.
“It was not a big deal!” — You may sound like a bully, telling person how they should be viewing the world and that their feelings and opinions are neither correct or important.
“I did not mean to offend you, so sorry if it did…” — It may sound that since you did not deliberately plan something, and hurting someone was an accident, they should shut down their feelings and act as if nothing happened.
“We apologize…” — When you are delivering an apology not just from yourself personally, it may just sounds as if you are blaming someone else, and not taking any personal responsibility.
How to apologize in a way that is mindful and sensible, which allows healing?
You can either do it in person, verbally, or write them a note. Either way, here are five steps to remember in order to construct a well composed, meaningful apology.
- Start with defining the purpose of your conversation (or letter, if done in writing). Example: “I would like to say that I am sorry” or “I am here to apologize”.
- Describe what happened, clearly and specifically. Example: “Yesterday, when you asked me to help you with the dishes at night, I raised my voice and walked out”, or “I took your jacket without asking you first”.
- Own the mistake by clearly stating that you understand that your words or actions were painful or harmful, and that you take the responsibility. Example: “It was wrong of me to refuse to help you and to assume that you can and should do the dishes on your own”, or “I was wrong taking your clothes without your permission”.
- Express the plan, describing why it will not happen again. Example: “In future, I will be more careful to control my attitude when you ask for help, and I promise not raise my voice or walk out”, or “I will make sure to ask you first anytime I want to borrow anything from you”.
- Ask for forgiveness. Example: “I hope you are willing to hear my apology and accept it. I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
Try to understand and practice the art of apology, as an important life skill. Because being sensitive and sensible to the needs of others and explaining and owning your mistakes is not a sign of weakness. It makes people and their connections stronger. Acknowledging human vulnerability teaches people to give and receive grace, which makes us all stronger at the core and wiser about life and relationships.