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Why a good apology makes a big difference

A good apology involves taking accountability for our behaviour and making a commitment not to repeat it

A lot of adults struggle to take ownership for their own actions.
A lot of adults struggle to take ownership for their own actions. (Pexels/Alex Green)

Just as rupture and repair are part of relationships, so are apologies. At the same time, in my experience, all apologies don’t lead to repair. How the apology is worded and the tonality used to communicate what must be said goes a long way towards whether it is seen as a good apology or not. Some apologies can lead to further rupture and leave the person receiving it more hurt, disappointed, and angry.

Words like “thank you” and “sorry” are what we learn early in our life. As a child, when I said sorry, it seemed like a behaviour and an action step that allowed me to address my own misbehaviour and move forward. My understanding as a therapist is that adults really struggle to apologise. Whether it is in friendships, work or intimate relationships, people often enter a score-keeping narrative when it comes to who apologises first in a conflict or when things don’t work out.

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An act of apology is a tender moment that requires us taking accountability for our own behaviour and owning up to it. It requires awareness about the role we played in a fight and how our choice of words and actions left the other person hurt.

A good apology requires vulnerability, sincerity, courage and a deep desire to move past the conflict, followed by an intention and commitment to act in ways that prevent or avoid the occurrence of similar situations in the future. As adults, we need to be mindful of how we choose to word an apology.

What helps while formulating an apology is to use sentences that begin with, “I’m sorry”. This needs to be followed by specifying what you are apologising for.

My understanding is that a lot of adults struggle to take ownership for their own actions. As a result, apologies very often come across as vague, unclear and not explaining what behaviour or action the person is taking responsibility for.

Being specific about how we hurt the other person tells them that we have introspected and thought about our actions and behaviour. It indicates an awareness. This needs to be followed by the next step of articulating an awareness about how our behaviour made the other person feel. Our actions have consequences and as a result, when we openly address the impact our behaviour had on the other person, we give them a chance to feel seen, heard and understood.

This needs to be followed by clearly stating a sincere wish that given this understanding, we will not repeat such behaviour. I often suggest that clients supplement this by stating some action steps that they will take to avoid such a situation again.

We need to pay special attention to the fact that while making an apology, we do not use conditional words like, “but” and “if only”. These words take us far away from an apology, and make it sound like an excuse. I remember a conversation with a couple, who were clients, where one person explained that their partner had apologised and said, “I’m sorry that I started shouting, if only you were listening and not interrupting, I would have not gotten into this rage.”

I worked with the couple and we discussed accountability. In a later session, the couple reported that how the apology was worded made a difference to their relationship. What the partner said this time around was, “I’m sorry for my behaviour of shouting and harsh words. I have thought about my behaviour and I feel shameful about it. I know how much it scared and hurt you. My earlier attempt at the apology seemed evasive, I’m going to work on managing my anger and rage. I promise I will not repeat this behaviour in the future.”

We don’t have control of whether our apology is accepted or not. That’s why it’s important to remember to give people time after you have made an apology and then know that sometimes there may be no response from the other person, or forgiveness.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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