How To Say “I’m Sorry” So That It Really Lands

Over the weekend, a friend and I got into a little “discussion.” You may see it as an argument.

by Lee Baucom, Ph.D.

But as modern times would have it, the whole discussion happened by text.

(Yes, professionals do still have disagreements. And yes, sometimes we also make the mistake of texting it!)

The whole argument started innocently enough (they always do!). It was simply a misunderstanding. I thought one thing was decided, and my friend thought another. His family acted on what they thought, while my family acted on what we thought.

We only discovered the distance we had traveled apart when an innocent text came to me. I noted in the reply text about what my family was doing, and it went downhill from there.

I have many bad traits and places of growth.

One piece of me, for good or bad, that goes back well into my childhood, is I am stubborn. Very stubborn. “Won’t budge” stubborn.

At times, it serves me well. At other times, not so well. In this situation, I am still trying to decide!

So, as I held my point — and in my thinking, only stating facts as I knew them, my friend grew more frustrated.

Later, he made some statements that I found rather hurtful. So, I finally excused myself from the conversation — which led to a couple more barbs thrown my way (at least in my interpretation of the events).

I pointed this out the next day, and got an “apology”. . . that felt very hollow.

Which has left me thinking about apologies.

What makes a good apology? What makes a bad apology? What difference does it make?

Apologies are the social lubricant of relational recovery.

When a relationship is bruised or ruptured, a sincere apology can lead people back into a relationship. Sometimes, even to a stronger relationship.

I find apologies to often be the beginning point of a whole new relationship. It can revive a flagging relationship and preserve a battered relationship.

But a poor apology can do more damage than good. It can serve to reinforce an opinion that the other person does not care, or is not taking responsibility. It can leave the “injured” feeling hollow, sometimes not even sure why.

After all, the other person will say, “I said I am sorry.”

So what makes a bad apology?

To me, this one seems to be subtle but clear.

An apology that is bad either does not apologize for an action or excuses the person.

Take, for example, if I hurt someone’s feelings and say “I am sorry your feelings were hurt.” That is not apologizing for what you might have done to hurt the feelings.

The “sorry” is for the fact the other person feels a certain way, not that the event happened.

If I say, “I am sorry if you heard it that way,” that is a bit closer. It does address that they might have heard it a certain way, but it still puts it onto them. In other words, they need to hear it differently.

Now, just to be clear, these ARE apologies! They are “I am sorry. . . .” But they are only apologies of interpretation. Not apologies for actions.

An apology of “I am sorry I said that, but blah, blah, blah” is the next bad apology. It makes an excuse of why you did what you did. “I am sorry I said that, but you made me mad” makes it the other person’s fault that you reacted in a negative way.

People want to be understood. And people do so by “explaining” why they did what they did.

But over the years, I have discovered that the difference between an explanation and an excuse is whether you are saying it or hearing it.

Explanations will be heard as excuses. Every time. Even if the explanation is true.

An apology that ends with “but blah, blah, blah” will be heard as “I am not apologizing. I am excusing myself.”

So what makes a good apology?

A good apology requires taking responsibility for an action. With no excuse. Just saying “I am sorry that I said _____ / I did ______.”

Isn’t it interesting that the simple approach is often the best?

But notice, you are claiming that you are feeling sorry.

If you are not really sorry, then don’t pretend. That will feel hollow.

With a little reflection, you are likely discover that you did not want to do harm to your loved one. That leads to that feeling of remorse that lets you know you really are sorry for your actions. It is no longer about defending interpretation.

Even if, like me, you are stubborn and resist admitting that you may have erred.

I am NOT saying that there are times when an action is misinterpreted. But a misinterpreted word or action tells you there are multiple interpretations.

So, you may actually then add clarification. Not excuse, but clarification.

For example: “I am sorry that I said ____. I know that hurt your feelings, and I feel bad about that. What I really meant was ________.”

It is certainly possible that, at that point, the clarification will not be heard. In fact, you may decide you simply need to apologize. Then wait for another time to be more clear in your thoughts.

NOTE: This does NOT mean you must always apologize! There may be times when what you said or did, even if hurtful, was exactly what you meant to say or do. That is when we often put out the “I am sorry your feelings were hurt”-type of apology.

That may be as far as you are willing to go. But let’s just be clear about that: this is not a deeply felt apology. It is an attempt to move forward without a change in behavior.

So, you want to be sure that is what you TRULY believe.

After letting your own feelings/ego/stubbornness die down, if you still believe you have nothing for which to apologize, you may find you need to stand behind your word or action.

I am good with someone choosing that. What I am NOT good with is when folks stumble through an apology, being less-than-clear out of their own need to excuse themselves and their actions. I am NOT good with a weak apology that does nothing to heal the relationship, even though the apologizer does feel remorse.

Apologies are all about ceding ego and admitting to a mistake. They are about taking responsibility for an action or word that caused pain.

Wait. That can be shortened. They are about taking responsibility. No excuse and no manipulation.

Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage. <=== Click Here to learn more!

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