Before I share a template for a great apology, let’s look at examples of lame ones. Warning: Do not try these at home…
- Well, sooorrry!! Jeez! — Not every sentence with the word “sorry” in it is an apology.
- “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.” — Uh oh. You just blamed the victim for choosing to suffer emotionally as a result of your actions. Lame!
- I’m sorry. Now…is there anything you’d like to apologize for??? — Nice try, but it ain’t gonna work.
- I’m sorry. But you deserved it. — You’d better duck. There may be a fist coming your way shortly.
My husband is great at apologizing. Not that he has too much to apologize for, but when he does offer one, I always feel better about the situation and about our relationship in general.
And that’s what apologies do– they heal.
But healing work is the work of the brave. It takes guts. Why? Because it’s scary to make yourself vulnerable, to face the people you’ve hurt, to be fully accountable for your words and actions, and to accept the consequences of your mistakes. It’s uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. And it’s hard to face the truth, particularly when the truth is that you screwed up.
Here’s something else you need to know: apologies are not about you. They are about the person you hurt and the relationship you share. If you make your apology about yourself, you’ll do a lame half-assed job of it in an effort to minimize your pain, guilt, and embarrassment. But if you remember that the apology is (mostly) for the other person, you will see the process more objectively: apologizing is an honorable first step in the journey toward healing. It’s a sacred act, and you are a critical part of it.
So there’s no need to hide from those you hurt. Be humble in your approach, but confident in your decision. Step up to the plate and follow this template:
“I’m sorry for ___.”
Be very specific about what you’re apologizing for. It’s not enough to say, “I’m sorry for anything I did that may have hurt you,” or “I said some things I shouldn’t have said.” I’ll give you a B- for your effort with those lines, but the person you hurt doesn’t remember their pain in generalities — they remember the words you used and the smallest details of your actions. So while you could start off with those generic lines, remember to follow up with a detailed list of your mistakes. The person receiving your apology will perceive it as more authentic and sincere (because you actually know what your crimes were and why they were wrong), and they will experience healing in a deeper and longer lasting way.
“I realize my actions caused you to ___.”
Acknowledge the emotional and physical consequences that the person has suffered as a result of what you’ve done. Once again it’s about being specific. How did you make this person feel? In what ways was their life changed because of your actions?
“I wish I had said (or done) ____ instead.”
By listing alternative scenarios, you show that you’ve consciously thought about the nature of your mistakes and how they could have been avoided. This will be very satisfying to those who hate your guts.
“I know I can’t erase the past, but I am prepared to ____ in order to make things right between us.” OR…”What can I do to make things right?”
This will show the person how serious you are about repairing the damage you have created. It is one of the most effective and satisfying forms of justice, and it will help the person heal.
”Is there anything else I’ve said or done that hurt you?”
Here you are giving the person an opportunity to vent, even if it means that they’re repeating the offenses and consequences you listed in your apology. This is tremendously important because a powerful part of the healing process is the purging of thoughts and emotions that have plagued the wounded person. Many people cannot feel a sense of closure unless they get everything off their chest.
“From this experience I’ve learned ___.”
When you demonstrate that you’ve learned important life lessons as a result of the situation, it gives the other person a sense that none of it was in vain — that the “perpetrator” has grown and will not strike again, and that the world is a better place for it. (Besides, there should always be personal growth happening. Always. So you’d better have a good answer for this one anyway!)
Remember, just because you make a great apology doesn’t mean it will be accepted. This is just one of the consequences of your actions. And sometimes a great apology is followed by a delayed reaction — like a seed planted in the ground, it could take a long time before it settles in and bears fruit.
Lastly, apologies are helpful and healing to relationships even if your crime was a minor one, even if the hurt was due to a simple misunderstanding, and even if the other person’s crimes against you seem far worse. (Which sucks, I know!) But what’s important is that you are accountable for your own actions. The rest is out of your hands.