The Art and Science of Apologizing

The Art and Science of Apologizing

As a Canadian I can claim special expertise here, coming from a nation famous to quickly offer the “I’m sorry” whether it’s appropriate or not. 

There are so many ways that we use apologies, some great and some that are not so healthy. Let’s just go ahead and get the appropriate and easy ones out of the way. 

I did something wrong, made a mistake, in some way hurt or damaged someone and I apologize based on a thorough understanding of how I contributed. This is excellent. I’m owning my stuff. 

Now for the ones that can sneak in that are not so healthy. 

1. “I’m sorry” being used sarcastically. The words may be what someone wants to hear but the sentiment is entirely missing or opposite. This is passive aggressive and falls short for a number of reasons. We assume the other party will reach enlightenment through our sarcasm. Highly unlikely but even if they do we have likely shut down communication and may never know. It is much more productive and we encourage the other person to own their part when we clearly say what we are upset about and what we want. 

2. We finally have the courage to give honest feedback to someone about something but then want to apologize because it feels awkward, they feel hurt or defensive or simply because it is so rare that we voiced what we need or want that it comes with some guilt that we try to alleviate by saying that we are sorry. When “speaking your truth” is new to you this may happen a lot. It can send a mixed message. The “I’m sorry” is really, once again, for our sake, but this time trying to minimize our earlier expression.  

3. I want the other person to apologize for something so I apologize for something related hoping that it will trigger an apology from them. This might feel just fine on the surface but still there is a level of inauthenticity here. It also is simply not very effective and takes away from the genuineness of the apology we are offering. An honest comment or invitation to dialogue about our concern is a more honest and effective way to have these kinds of conversations. 

4. “Sorry” can be used simply to elicit a “No, no, it’s ok” response from the other person. This too has a slippery side to it. We put the other person in to a position where it would be somewhat rude for them not to excuse us but also makes it harder for them to give us honest feedback that they may want to share. It can be used as a pre-emptive strike to keep a tough conversation at bay. 

5. The apology on top of apology can be more of an indicator that we are not forgiving ourself for some reason. That feeling of not being able to get the point across strongly enough that you feel really badly about something. The other party may also be reluctant to forgive but once we see a pattern of almost begging for forgiveness it is worth looking at both angles - likely you or the other person is not offering forgiveness and some deeper work may be in order. 

So, how do you know which apology pattern you are in? It really can be as simple as noticing when the words are coming out of your mouth (or are about to) and checking in with yourself to see if there are some other motivations going on. 

Is there something else you need to say instead? 

Is being silent the most powerful and wise thing to do? 

What about a modification to your apologies, e.g. “I am sorry that this is painful for you to hear” instead of simply “I’m sorry”? 

Here’s to healthy apologies! 

Until next week, 


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