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The art of apologising

Why is it so hard to say sorry, and why it is so important for relationships

When you say sorry, do you feel like you’re giving in, you’ve ‘lost’, you are losing power? Perhaps we’re not well equipped to apologise well. Perhaps ‘I’m sorry’ is too often seen as an admission of inadequacy.

I grew up in a household where adults did not apologise well; in fact they rarely apologised. Conversely, I found myself apologising profusely. It was not a helpful dynamic. I’ve had to work hard on giving meaningful apologies and saying “Sorry” less.

Apologising requires vulnerability. Which is hard. And yet so crucial to meaningful, healthy relationships. Saying sorry is likely to elicit guilt – which is normal – you’re saying sorry because you’ve done something wrong. Unfortunately for some it elicits shame not guilt – where we move to saying sorry because you are ‘wrong’ – not your behaviour.

With these musings in mind, I found Brene Brown’s conversation with Dr. Harriet Lerner so helpful. Together they reflected on the challenges of apologising, of what can get in the way of a true apology, and on how to apologise well.

Dr Harriet Lerner’s nine ‘essential ingredients’ to apologising well:

  1. Don’t use the ‘but’ word – you immediately move into justifying your behaviour and negating any real sense of being sorry
  2. Keep your focus on your actions and not the other person’s response – saying “I’m sorry that you feel hurt that I said xxx” isn’t an apology – there is no accountability for your actions
  3. Include an offer of reparation or restitution appropriate to the situation
  4. Don’t over do it – a true apology serves only to calm and soothe the hurt person, nothing more
  5. Don’t get caught up in who is more to blame or who started it – own and apologise for your part in it, even if the other person can’t see their part
  6. Do your best to avoid a repeat performance
  7. Don’t use an apology to silence the other person
  8. Is not a means to make you feel better if it makes the other person feel worse
  9. Don’t ask the hurt party to do anything, not even forgive you – an apology is a gift with no expectations attached

Last Updated on 1 August, 2021