The Secret World of Authentic Apology

Apology languages aren’t native to most of us.

And although we’ve gotten into them before, knowing in which direction to skew an apology isn’t the same as finding the right time, words, feeling, and method. 

Right now, there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen in the world. Friends are at odds, family members, neighbors – whole swathes and hordes of the population are quite literally fighting. 

We know well the dangers of hurt feelings left to fester…

Trauma, resentment, withheld affection, the clogged pores of slipped communication are just a few. Perhaps the most insidious of all is the widening of the “me vs. you” gap. 

All for the want of an authentic admission of guilt. It’s important to remember that none of us come out of the box fully-formed. Our lives are one teachable moment after another, stacked on top of each other like so many bricks. And while building personal resilience is not only invaluable, it’s expected of each of us in order to thrive in an often uneven and unjust world…

Learning how to deliver a wonderful and mending apology should be part of adult indoctrination.

Sure, we should, as our own entities responsible for our own well-being, be able to restore our own equanimity should we experience offense.

But if everyone studies the laws of friendship, allyship, and partnership, then a few less people in the world won’t have to use their energy reserves to restore themselves to themselves, or worse – push those feelings down, only to be unleashed on another undeserving member of our shared world.

First, let’s take a look at what a good apology isn’t.

Here’s What Not to Say

There are a few of the obvious faux pas in presenting someone with an apology…

  • Ifs and Buts: It can be tempting to exonerate yourself. Defend where you were coming from. Even when you lead with “This is not an excuse, but…” you’re not taking accountability. And if you’re not willing to take accountability, you’re not willing to apologize. 
  • Incompletion: If you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, it’s likely that it was more nuanced than a simple gesture or act of thoughtlessness. Without considering the myriad layers and angles in which you’ve caused offense, your apology is likely to feel two-dimensional, insincere, and you’ll end up having to craft another one. (Which doesn’t breed confidence or trust.)
  • Staying Passive: This is vital: you cannot speak for another person. Including rhetoric like “Sorry you feel this way…” or “If you hadn’t done…” removes the personal responsibility from your admission of guilt. It also assumes the feelings of the person you’re apologizing to, and suggesting the onus belongs on them for not better regulating their feelings. Be active, clear, and blame-free with your language.
  • Assuming Forgiveness:  A well-crafted apology is a beautiful thing – a bridge between you and another floating cluster of atoms on this lonely rock. But it’s not a magic elixir. Work needs to be done still, and assuming forgiveness is forthcoming with language like “Now that we’ve moved on…” or “When you’re over this…” strips power from the person you’re meant to be awarding it to.

You’ll Be Sorry You Skipped this Part

Okay! We’ve covered some of the more offensive mistakes in classic apology-making.

Let’s focus on some ways you can make your apology a positive experience!

  • Focus On Your Own Vulnerability: A solid apology should proffer an explanation for your transgression or mutual misunderstanding. This is your chance to communicate truths about yourself that aren’t always easy or comfortable to find space for. Could this be an opportunity to narrow the divide between yourself and another person, to find commonality where there wasn’t before, to express genuine empathy?
  • Ask Questions: The person you’re apologizing to may have explained already why they’re upset. Clarify anyway, and right at the beginning. Make sure that you understand unequivocally what you’re apologizing for – otherwise, you run the risk of being unintentionally disingenuous, and possibly committing the fault again. 
  • Suggest Solutions: Show that you’ve put thought into the ways you can repair your relationship, and the ways you can help salve the other person’s sore spots. How do you think you can avoid causing hurt in the future? How do you think you can communicate better if you’re finding yourself having difficulty honoring your word later on? How do you think you can make them feel better about forgiving you?
  • Give Space: If you have taken responsibility for your behavior, clarified and acknowledged how it was hurtful, expressed remorse, and suggested solutions for preventing this in the future, you may want to give them space to consider what you’ve said. Depending on the particular area of disagreement, it may be unreasonable and even aggressive to expect an immediate deliberation. At the very least, offer to give space!

Apologizing is not a perfect science – it’s messy, it’s situational, it’s conditional.

But there are a few principles to encode in your personal system of ethics that can serve as helpful and quasi-permanent guidelines for being a force of healing and reparation in your life. 
Above all, remember… Apologize the way that you would want to be apologized to. (It helps if you know the other person’s apology language – if not, include all elements!)

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.