What makes a good apology

Something that very few people have mastered, including myself, is the art of a sincere apology. I remember a few years ago, I did something pretty stupid without really thinking about it – I used to have verbal diarrhea in certain situations and then have no memory and even worse – take no accountability for what I have said. This has since changed since I’ve learnt from it but at the time I did not understand what it was I had done because I had no memory of what I had said. But regardless, my inability to make a sincere apology meant that I almost lost a good friend because of it. This experience has shaped me and continues to have an impact on the way I communicate with people and play a part in their lives. I’m more mindful of how my words affect people, of how we shape each others lives with our perceptions. But it wasn’t really until a while later, when I was in a position where I wanted an apology from someone else – a sincere heartfelt apology – that I realised how hard it is to do and how I had fallen short before.

It has been a few years since both these incidents but I recently had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking about it again. It reminded me how important it is to apologise with sincerity and how much it means to the person on the receiving end when they hear that ring of truth in a good apology. There are a lot of people with strong opinions and don’t get me wrong – I think it’s good to have an opinion on something but also be willing to hear someone else’s perspective and be open to changing your mind. And most people have the ability to do this and if not, they just say I’m sorry thats just my opinion, let’s just agree to disagree.

The thing about dreams though, is that they are not a fact, they have no boundaries, and you are allowed to have them, regardless of how undesirable it may be to someone else – because guess what – it’s your dream. So when my friend called me out on a dream I had – my biggest most desperate dream in fact – and told me that there is more to life than that, I was understandably a bit upset at his tactless remarks. After suggesting that this was harsh, I was then told what is the epitome of an un-apology; ““I have a pretty strong opinion about this and it probably is hard to hear”. It’s the classic mark of an insincere apology or deflecting the onus from the person who is making the apology to the person they are apologising to – it’s saying it is your fault because you find this hard to hear and you cannot handle what I have to say.

So here you have a terrible apology. Someone who first, doesn’t say the word sorry, second, does not mean this half-hearted apology which is more for convenience than anything else, and third, makes the person they are talking to feel like it is their fault for feeling hurt. You feel what you feel guys. And you do what you have done. So man up and apologise for it. But what actually makes a good apology and how can we practice being people who are compassionate about other people’s feelings, how can we be more mindful and thoughtful? Apologising with sincerity is something that I am still learning and by no means an expert on, so here are some tips I found while scouring the internet:

  • A meaningful apology has 3 R’s; Regret, Responsibility and Remediation. There needs to be some kind of expression of regret like ‘I am so sorry, I know that I hurt you and I feel so bad about it’. You also need to take total responsibility, that means not saying I am sorry that what I said/ did made you feel hurt, but I am sorry for actually doing it because what I did was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it. And finally some offer of remediation like ‘Let me make it up to you.” Or “I know I can’t change what I did but I promise I won’t do it again.”
  • Express regret, Take responsibility, Make it up to them, express the desire to change your behaviour, and request forgiveness
  • Never say “I’m sorry…but….” The but excuses your bad behaviour with whatever actions they have done. They need to take ownership of that themselves.
  • It’s not always the right thing to do to say sorry for everything, because it loses its meaning. Someone who says sorry as an involuntary reaction to everything they do isn’t really thinking about the apology or how what they have done has really affected the other person.
  • Don’t say sorry if you don’t mean it.
  • Sometimes just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. You need to actually show that you’re changing your behaviour and seek confirmation that your actions are providing remediation.

Apologising for something that you have done should be because you are sincerely sorry for it, because you understand the hurt and pain you have caused someone else and you want to make it up to them. An apology should not be about you getting closure from what you said or did, or about you trying to smooth ruffled feathers because its inconvenient. Apologise and mean it, from the bottom of your heart, and then try to act in ways that show you are following through on your words.


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