There are few things worse than knowing you’ve done the wrong thing, and that it has affected someone you care about. That sick feeling in your stomach? Feeling like you want to run away and live in a cave (or my preference, a remote Scottish fishing village) rather than face the music? That’s guilt.
Although guilt can feel heavy and VERY uncomfortable, it has an important function: it propels us to take meaningful action to repair a rupture in a relationship. And the cycle of rupture and repair is what makes you and your relationships strong!
Do I really need to apologise?
An apology is not, as it seems to some people, a weakening of your position or a declaration of your badness. It is simply an acknowledgment that your actions impacted another person in a harmful way, even if the harm is difficult for you to understand.
What makes a good apology?
If you’ve been able to recognise that you’re in the wrong, that’s a huge first step! Admitting fault is liberating. You own it now, and so you can choose what to do next. Let’s take a look at some steps toward a sincere, heartfelt apology. In 2016, Lewicki and colleagues* identified six elements of an apology, and completed two experiments to investigate how over 700 participants reacted to apologies with one to all six of the following:
1. Expression of regret:
2. Explanation of what went wrong
“I messed up and I hurt you”
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
“This is totally my fault”
4. Declaration of repentance
“I see how this has impacted you”
5. Offer of repair
“I’m going to try to make this better”
6. Request for forgiveness
“Please forgive me"
The researchers found that the best apologies contained all six elements, but that the most important is an acknowledgment of responsibility, followed by an offer of repair. The least important was a request for forgiveness
Nutting it out
First – get in the right headspace. Exercise, take some deep breaths or do something else that you know helps you to calm down. It is only when you are calm and clear that you’ll be able to connect with an authentic apology. Next, sit down and think about each of the above steps, and make them your own. Explain why you’re sorry, how you know that you messed up, what you’d like to do to repair the relationship and make sure you express the thought you’ve put into how your actions have impacted them.
If you’re finding it difficult to understand what you have done wrong, try asking! Ask them, with a tone of curiosity and without judgment, how your actions impacted them. This is not a chance for you to defend yourself or justify their actions, but simply to understand their perspective.
Stay on track
To truly understand how your actions have impacted others, you will need to ensure that your emotions of guilt or shame are not clouding your judgment and bringing up defensive reactions such as denial, blame or aggression. When you notice that your mind is creeping toward their past mistakes or trying to justify your actions, take a few breaths and remind yourself that it’s ok.
The most sincere way to apologise is face-to-face, although verbal apologies over the phone or in writing can be effective too. Your tone, body language, facial expression and how calm or anxious you are will significantly impact the way your apology is received. Try and make eye contact, take your time and breathe, and use open body language (no crossed arms and hunched shoulders, please!).
If you’re lucky, your apology will be accepted, and you will have achieved repair in your relationship! Well done – I really can’t emphasise enough how huge a step this is. If your apology is not accepted, this does not mean you have failed. The outcome you are working toward is a sincere apology, not their forgiveness. You’ve done everything in your control to take ownership of your actions, and you’ve made a repair in your self-relationship, even if it hasn’t repaired your relationship with an other.
** Lewicki & Polin, "The Art of the Apology: the Structure and Effectiveness of Apologies in Trust Repair" in Kramer (ed.) and Pittinsky (ed.), 2012, Restoring Trust in Organisations and Leaders: Enduring Challenges and Emerging Answers.
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Article written by: Kate McLisky
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.