Don't Be Sorry—Use Apologies


Why apologies matter, what they involve, and how they'll improve your relationship.

Apologies are much more than a trite or perfunctory exercise, the kind of half-hearted statements we might have offered as children when we were told to apologize for something we’d done. On the contrary, when coupled with genuine self-reflection, an apology can go a long way in repairing trust and re-establishing connection. Stepping forward when we’ve erred or hurt someone is ennobling and promotes reconciliation.

Some people are overly apologetic. They are too willing to take responsibility for anything as a way of avoiding conflict, so that others won’t be disappointed or upset with them. More people, however, have a tendency to downplay or dismiss what happened when confronted with something they did that upset or hurt someone else. “It’s wasn’t a big deal,” “You misunderstood,” or “That’s not what happened” are common responses. But our shame or reluctance to admit we were wrong only makes the situation worse. Repair is what strengthens relationships. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and admit you were wrong tells your partner that they matter. You will gain respect in being strong enough to apologize.

Sometimes a simple, sincere apology is all that’s needed to resolve a situation, though often more is needed. It’s better to think of an apology not as a simple, quick fix, but as part of a conversation about what happened. Delivered with sincerity, an apology conveys a willingness to understand the other person’s point of view and a desire to address their frustration. Most importantly, it conveys a willingness to look at your own role or behavior.

A pseudo or fake apology is one where you don’t take any responsibility for what happened—“I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” These aren’t apologies at all, and they’re not helpful. People use them defensively, either when they don’t want to acknowledge their role, or when they don’t feel they are to blame. However, even if you don’t perceive yourself to be at fault, your tone and attitude can convey a desire to understand and work things out.

If there’s a conflict or disagreement about what happened, be willing to open up a conversation rather than trying to get through it as quickly as possible. This means temporarily holding your knee-jerk reaction and really paying attention to what your partner is saying. Try to put yourself in their shoes. The more they feel understood, that you get their experience—even if you have a different view of what happened—the the more settled they’ll be, and receptive to hearing your side of the story.

I’m not saying to accept blame or responsibility for what isn’t yours, but often situations are ambiguous to some degree. What seems like no big deal to one person may be a point of sensitivity to another, especially in the context of your relationship history. So if your partner is upset with something you’ve done, see if there’s any part of the content in what they’re saying that you can agree with and speak to that, rather than getting hooked into the emotional tone of their frustration. For example, “That wasn’t my intent though I can see how it came across that way. I’m sorry, I”ll be more aware of it in the future.”

Apologies are not formulaic, though being sincere makes them more effective. This may be difficult when you’re feeling defensive yourself, but it’s something to strive for. In that regard, two things help: keeping your intent of resolving the situation in mind, and paying attention to your tone, which plays a huge role in effective communication. Either person can shift the tone of a conversation. This is especially hard to do when your partner is really upset, but if you can remain present and engaged and show that you’re willing to talk it through, it will serve your relationship immeasurably.