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The Art (and Importance) of Making Meaningful Apologies

“Sorry I forgot to pick up your prescription…” “I didn’t mean it like that…” If you’re in a relationship – especially one where you live together – you probably find some form of apology slipping out all the time. Sometimes it lands, sometimes it doesn’t.

You might try to rush through it to get away from your mistake as quickly as possible. Many of us scrape our apologies out of the bottom of our personal barrel. They get the dregs of our energy and attention, because, well, they’re often not fun. Moreover, though you hate to admit it, you probably feel lost when you try.

This is a normal and widespread feeling, because most of us are not educated very well on apologizing. Which is a shame since apologies are so important in our interpersonal relationships.

That’s why it’s so powerful to learn that, when we make mistakes, we can offer a meaningful apology instead of flailing. When you think of apologies as a “technique of authenticity” – something you can practice and master – it really takes away the shame. And it grounds them in interpersonal effectiveness.

Is There More to Apologizing than “I’m Sorry”?

According to renowned psychologist and writer Harriet Lerner, there’s a lot more. In fact, there are 9 essential ingredients of a “true apology.” And I tend to agree: simply including the words “I’m sorry” does not an apology make.

So, what does it take?

Focus on Your Behaviors

We’ve all heard an apology like “I’m sorry that you feel that way…”

Somehow, that doesn’t sit right. Why? Because the person isn’t actually taking responsibility for their part.

So when you know you need to apologize, whittle down your words to reflect your actions.

Sometimes it helps to literally sit down with a piece of paper and draw a “chain analysis” of the cause and effect that led to the conflict. Circle the parts of the chain that belong to you. That’s where you aim your apology.

Choose to Validate Over Justifying

To refer back to Lerner’s excellent apology guide, she warns not to include the word “but” in an apology. Remember: apologies are about taking responsibility, and “but” is another way to shunt it onto the other person, circumstances, or anything but yourself.

Instead, combine taking responsibility with another essential interpersonal skill: validation.

“But I don’t even agree with them! They were wrong!” you might protest.

So what? You don’t need to agree. You need to make them feel heard.

Validation simply tells the other person: “When I step into your shoes, I can see how your stance makes sense.”

Struggling to find the words? Try out some of these validating phrases:

  • “Based on… I can see how you would feel that way.”
  • “I understand that you were… at that time. Anyone would have that reaction.” – under a lot of financial stress, processing your mom’s death, juggling kids and career…
  • “I realize this has been hard for you.”


Choose to Listen Over Defensiveness

Tied in with validation is listening. Listening melts defensiveness like sun on ice, for both you and your partner.

For when you acknowledge a mistake, you will be tempted to mount your defenses. After all, who likes to hear about how they hurt someone else?

Unfortunately, defensive tactics – like stonewalling, criticism, or denial, to name a few – can lead you right back into the argument that started it all. It might even re-wound your partner or loved one who was already wronged.

I’ll lean on Lerner one more time. She said that apologizing takes “a big platform of self-worth to stand on.”

In other words, build yourself up to be capable of saying you’re sorry. Then, actually listen to the other person’s side. Even if you cringe. Comfort yourself knowing that you’ve made mature and sincere efforts to listen and repair – not by requiring their forgiveness.

Make a Plan to Move Forward

So what does “repair” look like? This will really depend on your circumstances.

Sometimes it’s buying a new lamp to replace one that you knocked over in a hurry. Other times, it’s a larger plan, like taking an anger management class.

When you make reparations, you may naturally stumble upon the beautiful aftermath of a meaningful apology. It can lead you to profound personal growth.


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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT