A Little Guide to Apologies: Common Pitfalls
Making an apology can be difficult. Tensions are often high, and you probably feel like a lot is riding on you  to say it right. Your attitude and word choice can mean the difference between further conflict, or a smooth recovery. Sometimes, no matter how you say it, the person you’re apologizing to will not be receptive, and that’s okay. My aim here is to list some of the ways we sometimes muddy our message of “I’m sorry,” and some ways we can more effectively, respectfully apologize.

WE’RE UNPREPARED

Apologizing Before We Understand What We Did

When we’re uncomfortable -- for example, when we’re confronted with harm we’ve done -- it’s natural that we want those uncomfortable feelings to pass as soon as possible. Sometimes this means we get ahead of ourselves, and before the person is even finished speaking, or before we understand what we did, we say, “I’m so sorry.” An immediate sorry has its place, but make sure you take a measured look at the situation before you think it’s resolved. It’s easy to rush into an apology only to make the same mistake later because we didn’t understand why the conflict began.

Not Bringing Anything To The Table

In my previous post, “Owning Our Part”, I said that a really thorough apology includes what we will do in the future, or what we will change for next time. Walking into an apology without any forethought means that we’re not bringing much to the discussion, and in many cases this puts all the work on the shoulders of the person you hurt. When we arrive with a solution or two, it shows that we’ve actually considered the harm we’ve caused and what we might do differently if or when we’re confronted with similar situations in the future.

WE HAVEN’T CHECKED OUR ATTITUDE

Going In With Expectations

Someone once told me that, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen,” and it’s been an incredibly useful thing to keep in mind when I’m apologizing. What that means is: when I go into something expecting a certain outcome, I’m setting myself up to resent that person if they don’t give it to me. This is especially unhelpful when the point of apologizing is to take responsibility for my actions, and hopefully soothe the affected person or people. It’s easy to get defensive and stop listening when we think we’re not getting something we feel entitled to. Remember: apologies aren’t an ‘undo’ button. If the person doesn’t accept your apology, it’s still good that you made it.

Self Pity

Another unhelpful thing we can sometimes bring to the table is our self-pity. Feeling sorry for ourselves is normal, but it's not a productive attitude to have when apologizing, and the way we display our self-pity often undercuts what we’re trying to say. Self-pity is a self-centric feeling and when we’re stuck in it, we’re prone to making the conversation about us. Collapsing in on ourselves and saying, “I’m such a horrible person”, "I know I’m such an asshole”, or (my personal least favourite to receive,) “I don’t deserve you or your forgiveness” is counterproductive to accepting responsibility. As I said in “Owning Our Part”, feeling sad, shameful, or disappointed isn’t accountability -- it’s how you feel. These phrases also unfairly ask the person you’re with to address your feelings when you’re meant to be addressing theirs.

Not Listening

We get so caught up in what we’re supposed to be saying, that we forget to listen to the response. Or we listen to the first response, get caught in our feelings and stop listening. Be prepared to hear (perhaps more than once,) about how your actions affected the person you’re apologizing to. Be prepared for them to think negative thoughts about you. Think about how you’ll feel if that happens. Think about what you will do if that happens. It’s okay if you don’t know. It’s okay if the answer is, “I’ll be devastated." This isn’t to get yourself keyed up and anxious, but it is a method of understanding yourself and your likely reactions before you get into the situation, so that you can effectively self-regulate and listen… keeping the focus on the person you’ve harmed and their experience . Often when I’m feeling anxious about making an apology, it’s because I’m thinking it through and get to, “This thing is the worst thing that could happen!” and then I stop. What’s helpful is having a plan for what comes after such as, “If they never want to speak to me again, I’ll call my friend/parent/counsellor.” 

Taking Over-Responsibility

In “Owning Our Part”, I wrote down some tips for figuring out our contribution to a given conflict. It can be challenging to examine our role in someone else’s pain, and we’re prone to either shirking responsibility, or taking too much. If you have trouble with social anxiety, emotional boundaries, or tend toward people-pleasing  behaviours, you’re likely prone to taking too much. Though it may feel selfless, this habit can be harmful, as it can lead to passive-aggression. It can also minimize, underplay and even deny the other person’s agency in the situation. Self-pity and taking over-responsibility often go hand in hand, and can look like this: “Oh fine, it’s all my fault.” “There I go again, ruining everything.” “I should never have tried in the first place.”

Fighting to be Right

If we’re fighting to be right, we’re likely in the wrong. Rehashing events so that we can convince the other person we behaved fairly(or that they reacted inappropriately) only deepens the conflict and creates more hurt. If we let go of being right, we’re more likely to collaborate and empathize with the other person and their experience of us. You are only one vantage point; if you think that their reaction is disproportionate to the event, try to understand where they might be coming from. You can do this by asking polite, thoughtful questions about their perspective.

Performing

An apology is not a performance -- if we’re merely doing it for an audience, we’re doing it wrong. This includes virtue signalling like: highlighting nice things you’ve done, naming people you’ve helped, explaining ways you haven’t hurt them or others, how many people respect you, name-dropping respectable people who like you, and more. Our apologies need to be about the person we hurt, not how we look to our friends, our community, or the internet. If an apology is genuine, it will look right to the people witnessing -- and, most importantly, to the recipient. This is not a time to manage how other people think of us; any onlookers’ inner lives are out of our control. Be kind to those you’ve hurt. Follow through. People will see it. 

OUR LANGUAGE IS UNCLEAR

Using Passive Language

“I’m sorry you got hurt.” “I’m sorry we fought.” “This situation resulted in me harming you.” All of these sentences subtract ourselves from the equation and imply that the harm was not caused by us, but you know, just kind of happened. It didn’t though. There were thoughts and actions that lead to the harm, accident or no.

Making Excuses and Casting Blame

‘But’ is the apology killer. “I’m sorry I hurt you but...” “I know that was wrong but...” “I take full responsibility but...” ‘But’ is a counterargument to what we just said. Don’t use it. No matter what we say after, it will sound like an excuse and undercut the hard work we’ve done to be accountable. Try ‘and’ or just ending your sentence and starting with your next thought. During an apology, it can be helpful to explain where we were coming from, but only explaining lacks accountability. “I did [this] because you said [this],” is an excuse, and casts blame on the other person. 

Never Actually Saying You’re Sorry

“I’d like to apologize for…” “I regret that…” “I wish things had gone differently.” “I did this thing and it hurt you.” All of these are good things to say, but none of them are actually saying the words, "I’m sorry.” It’s nice that you’d like to apologize, but you actually need to do it.  I know that for me, the words “I’d like to apologize for the hurt I caused,” are much easier to say than, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” It’s important to feel the impact of the things that we’ve done, and that means saying the difficult words. Not everyone will be such a stickler for this kind of detailed language, but this series is as much about thorough apologies as it is effective ones. 

BONUS ROUND

Probably Not The Time

The following are phrases that most often will not get you far in your attempts at apologizing.

- "I didn’t know."

- "I’m sorry you feel that way."

- "I’m sorry you were offended."

- "I’m sorry if I hurt you." 

- "I’m sorry you…" (Literally anything after “I’m sorry you” is gonna go badly.)

- "Next time I just won’t ask you for anything/do anything."

- "Next time I just won’t help."

- "I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal."

- "Why didn’t you tell me sooner?"

- "I just won’t trust you to tell me what’s wrong next."

- "I already said I feel horrible, isn’t that what you want?"

- “Fine."

- “Whatever."

- "[any phrase followed by], happy?"

- Yelling your apology

Hopefully this helps you identify some common barriers to getting your message across. If you’re panicking, take a breath! It’s okay that you didn’t know this until now, but now that you do, it’s time to get to work. You can work on implementing a couple of these strategies at a time, and if you feel you need to, you can check out my previous post, “Owning Our Part”, for how to make your apologies even better. The next post, “Spotting the Non-Apology,” builds on “Common Pitfalls” and discusses how these mistakes can serve as warning signs for negatively impactful situations.


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