How can we apologise effectively? What are the features of a good apology? How can failing to apologise affect our relationships, including with our children? These are all important questions that this blog answers. Sorry is most definitely the hardest word to get right, and that song by Elton John “sorry seems to be the hardest word” hits the nail on the head. It is not as simple as just saying one word – sorry. There really are several important steps involved in creating an apology that allows both parties to heal from the hurt caused. Every family member will argue from time to time, it’s natural as we are humans raised in different environments with different feelings. To live happily together we need to ensure we learn to say sorry in the best way possible, to help ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again and to ensure our connections remain positive with the other person.
Can There Really Be A Bad Apology?
First, we look into the research on what a bad, or even no, apology can do to us. We all can remember a time when someone did something hurtful to us and the apology felt like a fob off, half hearted, inconsiderate… the argument or apology may still play on our minds now. What makes an apology bad? Below are some common and weak apologies which can keep distance and frustration in our relationships.
Not saying sorry, for example, because you assume that the other person should ‘just know’ you did not mean to hurt them. Or believing that so long has passed that an apology is unnecessary. The other person may appear to forgive you even though no apology has been discussed. Internally though, it may lead to resentment or feelings of sadness and a fear that you’ll hurt them again if the same situation happens again. These internal suppressions of emotions, or sweeping things under the carpet, may take its toll on your relationship, as well as their body and mind, over the years.
“I’m sorry but I was tired / stressed / premenstrual…” This may be disguised as an apology due to the word ‘sorry’ at the start, but in fact is saying the hurt caused was not your fault. This signals to the other person that they should just accept and forgive because you wouldn’t normally be in such a position. Actually, what it says is “I am OK to do this providing I am tired / stressed / premenstrual, and I’ll likely do it again the next time I feel like this…”. When someone excuses their behaviour, it does not take ownership.
Not Enough Care
Some people say “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you”, or equivalent, and it simply is not enough to help the other person feel that you care. It aims to make you look better by showing that you didn’t intend it, but it does not aim to make the other person feel better. It also has an indirect message to the hurt person that their response may be a bit over the top or that they are not empathetic to your intentions.
Blaming the recipient of your hurt, or another person for your actions, is a fatal move. This blame can be on the other person involved, such as “I’m sorry I shouted but you really shouldn’t wear shoes in the house…”. It could also even be blamed on a third party to the situation, for example “Sorry that upset you but Granny told me you hated me…”. This does not show any awareness of your actions in the situation and how you caused hurt. It is also making yourself look kind whilst making the other person look bad, which leaves the hurt person feeling that it is either all their fault or that it’s someone’s fault who they cannot even seek an apology from. This can causes anxieties and self esteem issues in the longer term.
There are occasional exceptions to this, for example where you live at long distances and rarely see each other. However, a heartfelt apology in writing can lack emotion and the other party can feel you may have taken a long time to plan and write, perhaps with the help of another person. It also does not allow you to hear the other person’s story about the hurt caused, and therefore may not succeed in apologising about the things that truly hurt them. The impact of a written apology is not as strong as a genuine face-to-face one, looking each other in the eyes, listening to each other and seeing each other’s emotions.
Expect them to Accept
Perhaps an apology was not done very well or maybe the other person feels so hurt by the actions. You may be in a situation where they don’t say ‘ok’ straight away, or at all. Some people can react by saying things like “well, I already said sorry about that, what’s the point in going on about it!” or things like “I’ve said sorry! What more do you want?!”. This end to an apology takes the sincerety out of the apology altogether and can cause the other person to feel if they don’t accept it, even if they’re not feeling better about the situation, then you will disregard their feelings on the matter. This puts undue pressure on them to forgive just because you may get annoyed if they don’t. In the long term, the argument will keep repeating as the other person still does not feel they accept your apology yet. It can make a conversation, which appears to have a nice ending of you saying sorry, a very heated and unfair one where the other person yet again feels upset by your actions.
Lasting Effects of a Bad Apology
There are several researched and known lasting effects of failed apologies.
- Resentment – the person who has been hurt by you can reflect over hurts you have caused over the many years in the future. They may hold resentment over you which can tarnish your relationship in the long term. Feelings can range from “this person doesn’t care about me” to “how can they not say sorry for how much they hurt me!”. These negative emotions can become unbearable if other hurtful behaviours happen along the way too.
- Isolation – Not apologising properly to someone when they have been hurt by you, even if there was no intention to hurt them, can cause them to not want to spend much time with you. They withdraw from your company because they feel scared you will hurt them again, or they feel invalidated by not having heard you admit fault to things you did wrong.
- Psychological Health – giving a great apology helps reduce your guilt as the other person offers you forgiveness. Guilt in the long run can ‘eat you alive’ emotionally and cause anxiety, negative coping behaviours, and frustrations about the situation you’re in. Releasing that guilt by offering a meaningful apology can help release these guilty feelings from your mind and body.
Important Features of a Good Apology
We can learn important things to do when considering what makes a bad apology from the sections above. Let’s now consider how to make those apologies great using the tips below.
The most important first part of an apology is to take oernwship. Stating what exactly you did wrong, starting with “I…”. For example “I took away your toy thinking you had broken it…”. This is all that needs to be said to start your apology.
Do not misplace that ownership by saying what they did to cause your reaction. For example don’t say “I took away your toy thinking you had broken it because you never told me you didn’t!”. This puts the blame on the other person, rather than on you for doing something wrong. It implies like the other person caused the hurt on themselves, which will only leave them still feeling hurt by you.
Their Emotions / Empathy
Key to most aspects of gentle parenting is acknowledging the other person’s feelings. This also makes you empathetic to how much you hurt them. For example “…That really upset you because you’ve since told me it was your brother who broke it. That must have been so frustrating to feel like I blamed you for something you didn’t do…”. If they’re old enough to express emotions, you can ask how that made the feel. Genuinely listen to their response and imagine you were the one feeling what they feel. It will help you see the pain from their perspective, which will help you feel remorse and empathy towards them.
Acknowledging that you feel sad for hurting them is the genuine side of an apology. When you feel true remorse, you naturally will want to find a way to make it feel better. Sometimes you can’t, but you can always ask if there is any way you can make the other person feel better. Following on from the above example “… I am sorry I misunderstood the situation and upset you. Will it make you feel better if I give you the toy back, or if we try to fix the toy together?”
How Will Things Change
This is the hard part and it really needs to be thoroughly thought through before diving in with a commitment for change. This gives your children comfort that the hurt caused won’t be repeated. If you’re not sure when originally trying to say sorry and want to have a think about it first, that’s fine too. Let’s say in the example above that you needed a bit of time to work out how you could stop yourself hurting your child in the same way. You can leave the apology at the remorse stage above. Later, you can come back to the child and say what your plan is. “…I was thinking about the mistake I made earlier when I took your toy away. I don’t want to hurt you like that again, so I’ve decided to try and ask you what’s happened when I haven’t been there. You could have them told me your brother broke it, and we could have fixed it together then. Mummy made a mistake by not asking you that first, but next time I will aim to do that.”
As a side note, here is the reason this part needs to be fully thought through first. If you say something without working out how achievable that is for you, you may cause trust issues in the future if you do not stick to your word. You need to make changes that you are confident you can achieve, and also that stop you causing the same hurt again. Nobody likes a fake apology. It’s so easy to say “I’ll never do that again”, but if it’s well thought out your response will be more detailed than that, as you will know exactly what you will do to ensure you won’t do it again.
Benefits of Good Apologies
Effective apologies benefit not only the recipient but also the person giving the apology. Ultimately if we do not apologise well, the need to be ‘right’ is to the detriment of our connections. We instead become lonely as the people we have relations with do not believe you care enough about how your actions or behaviours impact them. Even if our aims in life are to always be ‘good’ or have the best intentions, by nature we will sometimes hurt another person, whether intentionally or not. Apologies help keep our relationships strong and help all of us move on with our lives feeling forgiven and loved.
Should Our Children Witness the Apology?
Asolutely, yes. Providing it is an effective apology, this teaches your children how to apologise and also shows them how you conclude any disagreements. If you only apologise in private, your children will assume that you “swept it under the carpet” and may learn to sweep their mistakes under the carpet too in the future. Gentle parenting fully encourages apologising to others when you make mistakes. It acknowledges that we are only human and will inevitably hurt others in our lives. Apoligising quickly and effectively can help reunite our relationships and keep our connections strong.
If you are like me and were not raised with how to master the art of a good apology, the below book ‘A Good Apology: Four Steps to Making Things Right’ is an essential read. The link below includes the hardcover, audiobook or kindle edition of this book.
Psychologists such as Dan Siegel also agree on the importance of making things right after we hurt our children. For further reading, his new book ‘The Power of Showing Up’ (released 2020) is all about showing up for your children, not just physically but emotionally too.