Here’s a bad way to apologize: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” How many times have we heard this from people we know and from people in the news. They’ve done something hurtful and of course the other person is hurt. There’s no “if” about it. If you whack someone in the nose, their nose is broken. If you say something insulting or attacking, the other person is hurt, and the hurt is just as severe, emotionally, as if it were a physical hurt. Putting the “if” in there makes it a false apology.
Another kind of apology that’s not very useful in resolving anything is the kind where someone says “I’m sorry I hurt you, but if you just wouldn’t have….” or “but when you…” This is also not a real apology because it puts the blame on the person that you’ve just hurt.
Ineffective Apologies Hinder Conflict Resolution
Let’s assume that the purpose of an apology is conflict resolution or to heal emotional pain. There are, of course, other more self-serving reasons—which often give rise to the above kinds of apologies. But if we assume the healing and conflict resolution purpose, here’s why the above apologies don’t work and often even back-fire.
1. They create, rather than alleviate, emotional pain
2. They create or add to resentment
3. They lead to conflict escalation rather than conflict resolution
4. They are an attempt to get yourself off the hook, but it usually doesn’t work
Apologies that Lessen Emotional Pain
Scary as it may seem to apologize genuinely, genuine apologies work better for everyone. Not only do they lessen the other person’s emotional pain but they actually resolve arguments and end up helping the apologizer, too!
How to Apologize Effectively
First, you need to put yourself congruently into a frame of mind where you’re taking responsibility for what you’ve done, without secretly or even unconsciously still thinking the other person is somehow to blame, or “made” you do it.
To apologize effectively, you need first clearly to admit the wrong you’ve done, stating how you imagine it’s affected the other person, the emotional pain it’s caused, or what you’ve cost the person. Tell them that you’re sorry you did what you did and let them know what you wish you had done instead, or what you would do if you had a chance to do it over again.
Be careful not to slide into an insincere apology where you’re only seeming to take responsibility, but instead covertly making the other person to blame for what you’ve done. For example, “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t even let you near my house so I wouldn’t have to look at you and get mad and say what I said.” That’s definitely not taking responsibility for anything.
Don’t Expect Anything from the Other Person
It’s also important just to apologize and leave it at that. Often, each person in an argument wants the other person to take responsibility for their part first, before they’re willing to bend. Unfortunately, that’s what keeps you in the negative cycle of argument; that’s what, again, hinders conflict resolution and emotional healing. Paradoxically, being the one to start taking responsibility and apologizing, without expecting anything from the other person, is what heals conflicts. It gives an opening for the other person also to apologize.
If you say, “I realize when I did “x”, I really hurt you in “x” way. I’m so sorry. If I had it to do over again, I would (do some specific positive thing),” and THEN YOU STOP TALKING, you’ve taken responsibility for your part. The other person feels seen and feels relieved, and there’s an opening for them to take responsibility for their part. On the other hand, if you say, “I realize I did “x”, but you did “y”, all you do is escalate the conflict.
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