There is no other word that is so easy to say and to undermine simultaneously as ‘sorry’. For when we say sorry and quickly follow it with ‘but’ or ‘however’ or any other modifiers or qualifications like inmates shackled together, it is no longer a heartfelt apology. Instead it becomes an excuse for bad behavior and piles more pain on any hurt already inflicted.
It’s a bit like offering to shake someone’s hand and pulling it away at the last moment. The recipient of our almost-apology is left not just wronged but also cheated. Not so much an apology than bunch of easy words that ring hollow.
How many of us have said something like this,
“I’m sorry I’m late for supper, darling. It’s just that I had so much on at work I couldn’t get away.”
This is less an apology than an implicit communication saying, work is more important than spending time with you even when you’ve gone to the effort of preparing food. In other words, I care more about work than our relationship.
How much more effective and powerful to say,
“I’m sorry I’m late. It must have been annoying for you, wondering where I am when you’ve gone to all this effort making supper.”
Even worse, offering up “I am sorry you are so upset that I am late but I couldn’t help it” is no apology at all.
So why is saying sorry so hard?
For all our bluster and bravado, men are insecure creatures. Sincerely saying sorry can feel exposing – frightening even – leaving ourselves open to attack or blame. To admit to our failures and offer contrition to those we’ve let down can feel disempowering, like exposing a weakness. “Never apologize, never explain” is a mantra too many of us implicitly live by. It doesn’t help us and it certainly doesn’t help our relationships with other people.
We should never forget that to apologize takes courage – which is a virtue most guys would like to embody. The vulnerability of a genuine apology opens up something incredibly important between yourself and the person you’ve wronged. Our apology invites the other person to open up about how our behavior made them feel. “When I didn’t hear from you I wasn’t sure if I’d got the time wrong,” they might say. “Thanks for apologizing. Now I know it wasn’t me. So what took you so long?”
Now the conversation is becoming exploratory and creative rather than blaming and defensive. Our apology is connecting us to the person we’ve let down. It brings us closer together.
Three steps to an effective apology:
Step 1. Express remorse: “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” are the only meaningful ways to express regret. When you say these words they need to be meaningful and sincere. Anything else is not an apology but an excuse.
Step 2. Take responsibility: after expressing remorse it’s important to imagine how your actions have impacted on the other person and how they made them feel. “You must feel really angry with me” or “If I was you I’d be feeling let down by what I did”.
Step 3 Make amends. It’s important that these aren’t hollow words either, you must carry out your suggestion or the apology will start to unravel. “What can I do right now to make things up to you?” “What if I make supper tomorrow evening to make up for my being late tonight?”
Finally, you might say that what you’ve apologized for will never happen again —although that could be too big a promise. Assuring those who have been wronged that we will do our best to not repeat the hurt is more realistic. We might intend to never pull our hand away from an imminent hand shake ever again, but the teenage prankster inside us can never absolutely guarantee it.