The power of a real apology…

We’ve all done it; said something that had unintended consequences, made a choice without regard as to how others might be affected, just basically did something that hurt someone else.  Fortunately, we have an amazing thing called an “apology” that, while it can’t undo history, it can go a long way toward getting the feelings involved back to where they were.

But to achieve that, it needs to be done correctly.

I have had two situations in the last week, one for which I am merely a spectator to both sides and one in which I am somewhat in the middle, and in both cases I am baffled by the seeming unwillingness of people to just apologize.  Correctly.

Now I know this is a judgment on my part, but let me explain.  If a friend has a tragedy in life in which you are not involved in any way but you are rather just “there for them”, then saying you are sorry for how they feel makes total sense.  The way they feel has nothing to do with your own actions and choices, and so to say “I’m sorry you are sad”, or “I’m sorry you feel hurt” and any other similar phrase is often quite helpful.  This is because your job at this point is to SYMPATHIZE.

An actual apology should not phrased the same way as sympathy.

If the person’s feelings are a function of your own words and actions, I don’t think the other person is looking for your sympathy.  They don’t need to know that “You are sorry that they feel hurt”.  They need to know that “You are sorry that you hurt their feelings.”

These are not even remotely the same.

The obvious difference is that one takes responsibility and the other does not.   And what the hurt person needs to know is that you take responsibility, not that they have your sympathy.

Now this does not mean that every situation where someone gets hurt requires an apology.  Sometimes things need to be said that may hurt someone else and there is not a way around this.  It may seem counterintuitive, but the actions which I find MYSELF apologizing most often for are those that had completely unintended consequences, where I hurt someone feelings without realizing my actions could be hurtful.  Just because it was not INTENDED does not mean it is not my fault that their feelings got hurt.  if you back into someone’s car in a parking lot, you had no intent to damage their vehicle but it is STILL your fault, even it was an accident.

In the situation in which I am a spectator, the person’s response is “but I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings!”, which may also be the reaction of you, the reader.  There is the argument that how they interpret your words and actions is up to them and if they are hurt by them, then it is their problem and not yours, but I think if you try tack that in every situation you will not be pleased with the results.

And certainly the people around you won’t either.

Lastly, a real apology seldom comes with a a lot of conditions, explanations, caveats, and the like.  If you need to fill out this form in your head when apologizing, you’re probably not really apologizing.  You are justifying.


So try this the next time you want to apologize: do it in as few words as possible and see how it goes.  I try to keep mine to this:

“I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.”

One thought on “The power of a real apology…

  1. Diana B Sunday February 10, 2013 at 9:13 am Reply

    I loved this. Very well written.

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