The Art and the Magic of a Sincere Apology

When we hurt someone, whether intentionally or accidentally, a sincere well stated apology can usually fix it.

<p> In the well-stated apology, the offender takes responsibility for a specific offense, and makes expressions of regret sincere, timely and brief. Giving an appropriate apology is a skill that can be learned.

<p> Many think that if no harm was intended, no apology is required. Not so. I would not intentionally spill ink on my neighbor’s carpet, but I sincerely regret the spilling, and I am responsible for the damage that was done.

<p> Sincerity is of course the most important ingredient in an expression of regret. A sincere apology requires the person who has offended to take responsibility for the offence. For example, "I’m sorry I didn’t make myself clear" is better than "I’m sorry you didn’t understand me" or, "I’m sorry you took it the wrong way".

<p> An apology on the spot is worth more than one that comes later. When Cindy teased Steve in front of friends, she knew she had hurt him. The longer she waited with her, "I’m sorry" the harder it was to bring up the sensitive issue. When there was no apology to indicate that Cindy was aware of her offense, Steve thought he ought to teach Cindy a lesson. When the opportunity presented itself, he found a way to embarrass Cindy in front of friends. It wasn’t such a big deal, but Steve was hurt and a simple straightforward apology would have been appreciated and accepted. It would have negated Steve’s agenda to teach Cindy a lesson.

<p> A timely apology is more difficult when we fear the consequences of our action. When Roger dented the fender on his father’s car, he was too frightened to come clean right away. Of course, the longer he waited the worse his consequences became. Now, the offense was not just the mistake that resulted in a dented fender, it was an issue of trust between father and son.

<p> Dick, a physically strong boy of fourteen didn’t know that his playful "horsing around" with his little brother actually hurt the younger boy physically, and emotionally. Dick figured it out later when he observed that his brother was avoiding him. Dick said "I’m sorry" and good feelings between brothers were restored. Even a late apology is better than none.

<p> Being specific is important. "I’m sorry I shouted at you" works a lot better than "I’m sorry I’m such a loudmouth". The offended person might erroneously, think you’re apologizing for having a different opinion, thus causing more confusion in the course of the conversation.

<p> A sincere apology may require retroactive damage control. For example, I’m sorry I told lies about you needs to be followed with action to correct misinformation given to others.

<p> An offender who is sincerely sorry also needs to be brief. A lengthy explanation for why the offense occurred tends to water down or diminish a perception of sincerity. Anthony had inadvertently betrayed a confidence John shared with him. Anthony says to John, "I’m sorry I told Steve what you said to me, but Steve kind of coaxed it out of me, and I wasn’t aware that it was such a secret. I didn’t know how important it was to you to keep that information confidential. Besides, I’d had a couple of beers and my mouth tends to run off when I’ve been drinking. If I’d have known you would be so upset, I wouldn’t have done it." This apology tends to minimize the offense and come off as insincere "I’m sorry I hurt you. I’ll try to keep what you tell me to myself in the future," would have been more appropriate.

<p> A defensive attitude tends to make matters worse rather than better. Don said, "I’m sorry I ate the last piece of cake. (But, it’s not my fault.) I didn’t know you were saving it for your mother. Leftovers in the refrigerator have never been off limits before. It wasn’t clearly labeled. If we’d had clear rules about what I can and can’t eat, and the cake had been labeled, I wouldn’t have eaten it." Cindy replied, "I don’t think you’re sorry for eating the cake. You’re just mad at me for not putting a label on it."

<p> Beginning a sentence with the words "I’m sorry" doesn’t automatically qualify the statement as an apology. I’m sorry you tripped over my foot, but you should look where you’re going" for example is not an apology.

<p> Sometimes what starts out as an apology ends up blaming the victim. Ruthie says to her sister Carol, "I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but if you weren’t so overly sensitive, I wouldn’t have to watch every word I say. You get that pained look on your face, and I just feel like saying more cutting things. You have to toughen up." When Carol whines that Ruthie is blaming her, Ruthie retaliates with "I said I was sorry, didn’t I?"

<p> Saying "I’m sorry" can do more harm than good when the words are followed by criticisms, excuses, and accusations. A sincere well stated apology however promotes cooperation and avoids a lot of trouble.

    —M. LaCourt