Mistakes. We all make them. Some are small, like spilling wine on a friend’s couch or forgetting a birthday. Others are bigger, causing hurt that can lead to lasting, sometimes irreparable damage in a relationship.
That’s what makes apologies important.
“We all hurt other people just as we’re hurt by them. So, the need to give and receive apologies is with us until our very last breath,” Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of "Why Won’t You Apologize?" tells TODAY.com.
But not everyone understands how to apologize — or why saying "I'm sorry" is even necessary.
“When done right, an apology is deeply healing,” Lerner says. “And when an apology is absent or we muck it up, it can put a crack in the foundation of a relationship, or it can even end a relationship.”
In fact, failing to say we’re sorry for something we’ve done that’s affected someone we love, can ultimately end up causing more damage than whatever we're apologizing for in the first place.
“The courage to apologize and the wisdom and clarity to do it wisely and well is at the heart of everything that’s most important,” she says. “It’s at the heart of parenting, leadership and friendship. It’s at the heart of our own sense of personal integrity and accountability and self-worth.”
Yet, saying sorry isn’t always easy. While an apology for something small, like accidentally stepping on someone’s toe, is almost automatic, apologizing for something much bigger tends to be more difficult.
That’s because, as Lerner puts it, our brains are hard-wired for defensiveness when we’re confronted. When we listen defensively, our focus shifts to any exaggerations or inaccuracies in the conversation rather than “listening for the essence of what the hurt or angry party needs us to understand.”
Once we feel defensive, we often end up debating the things we don’t think are true or fair instead of genuinely listening to what the injured party has to say.
And it’s the listening part that Lerner says is essential. “If only we would listen with the same passion we feel about being heard."
“Apologies are extremely powerful,” Karina Schumann, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, tells TODAY.com.
Even when you don’t think you’ve done something “wrong,” Schumann says it's important to view the situation from the perspective of the person who’s been harmed or offended, then validate it.
“To hear those words of recognition that you’re aware that something has happened that’s upsetting or problematic for this person, and that you’re not making excuses for it,” can be extremely impactful, according to Schumann.
So, what are the steps in delivering a heartfelt apology? “When it’s something important, the good apology may start with ‘I’m sorry,' but it doesn’t end there," Lerner says.
Below, Lerner and Schumman offer some pointers on how to apologize sincerely and effectively.
Step 1: Listen, then listen again
A good apology starts with the willingness to listen and hear what the injured party has to say despite any objections you may have. "Sit on the hot seat and listen with an open heart to the anger of the wounded party," Lerner suggests.
More often than not, you won't be able to cover all the bases in one conversation.
“If it’s a big betrayal, there’s no greater gift or one that’s more difficult to offer then the kind of listening where we put aside our defensiveness and listen to someone’s anger and pain when they’re accusing us of causing it," Lerner adds.
Step 2: Take responsibility
According to Lerner, a good apology requires us to take “clear and direct responsibility for what we have or done or failed to say or do” without any caveats.
That said, a "true apology does not include the word ‘but.’”
A genuine apology is a sincere expression of empathy, remorse and should take responsibility for your actions. A good example: “I’m really sorry about what I said at the party last night. It was insensitive and uncalled for.”
It’s not an apology if you focus on the other person’s feelings or response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at the party last night.”
The kind of apology doesn’t work because there’s no accountability or ownership of the action. Instead, it puts it on the injured party. “You don’t apologize for someone else’s feelings, which maybe implies that if they were a little tougher and they weren’t so sensitive, maybe they wouldn’t be so hurt,” Lerner says.
Step 3: Make reparations
Be sure to include a “corrective action,” which Lerner describes as something that attempts to rectify the wrong that’s been committed.
Say, you receive bad service or food at a restaurant and the server says they’re sorry but fails to make up for the poor service or food in some way. “It’s a terrible business error to apologize, but not to make it right," Lerner says.
When it comes to relationships, commit to not making the same mistake again or make it known that you’re going to change your behavior.
This, of courses, depends on the situation at hand. In Lerner's eyes, a single “I’m sorry” probably isn’t going to cut it for big things like affairs, abuse and other toxic behaviors.
“It’s very rare to get an apology done in one conversation,” Lerner explains. And as difficult as it may be, she says it’s important to not wait for the injured person to bring up the incident again to have another conversation about it.
“We always wait for the hurt party to bring it up, but an important part of reparation, when it’s something important, is to take the initiative to bring it up."
Step 4: Allow time for forgiveness
Remember: Most problems aren't solved in a day. While you may think — or hope — that you'll be forgiven as soon as you apologize, that's not always the case.
“Some think an apology is just not enough for some types of offenses,” Schumann says. “There shouldn’t be an onus and pressure on victims to forgive immediately when they receive an apology.”
A sincere apology can help begin the healing process, but the person who's been hurt should always listen to their own needs and only forgive when — or, well, if — they're ready.
The person apologizing should allow time and space for forgiveness to happen. “Be ready to engage in a longer process of accountability as opposed to just thinking, ‘I’ve apologized. It’s done, the person’s going to forgive me now,’” Schumann says.
Relationship damage or the “fraying of trust in a relationship”may require a longer process of changing behaviors and rebuilding that trust, according to Schumann. “So, apologies are a great starting point, but they usually require a little bit more than that.”
Step 5: Validate each other’s point of view
You should always try to enter the conversation with an open mind and the willingness to work through the issue.
“It takes two,” Schumann says. “But one person can initiate open-minded communication where you’re not attacking the other person, attacking their character and talking about how they always do this kind of thing to you.”
Taking that approach, she says, is likely to put the other person on the defensive. “But these are the steps that can try and reduce that defensiveness and really try to promote empathy and understanding between the people involved,” Schumann says.
It’s also important to recognize that, in some cases, you may never get the apology you’re hoping for.
“People who commit serious hurt may never get to the point where they can admit to their harmful actions, much less apologize aim to repair them,” Lerner says.
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Keep in mind that there's no statute of limitations on saying sorry. “It could have been something that happened a very, very long time ago,” Lerner says, adding that it's better to apologize late than not at all.