The Strength — and Worth — of a Good Apology

Being and conveying that you’re sorry turns out to be an important life skill

Many years ago, I managed a mediation program in Seattle where 400 lawyers worked pro bono to resolve cases pending in Superior Court. Most of what we handled were car accidents, and my boss at the time — who had founded the program, and was a persuasive, folksy and very successful defense lawyer himself — told me terrible tales about how very far cases could get once individuals lawyered up, that could have been settled long before with a simple apology. “All I wanted was for him (usually, the other driver) to visit me in the hospital and apologize,” he would tell me clients would frequently say, but it wasn’t until after the case was finally heard in court — and years of stress and distress had ensued — that the other side would take the opportunity, if ever, to say they were actually sorry. Often, they had explicitly been told not to, on the advice of their lawyer.

  • Sincere
  • Non-evasive
Courtesy Merriam Webster.
L-R, the good boss, and the temporarily clueless human, at a ballgame, way back in the day.

So what makes for a good apology?

Key elements of a good apology

  1. It’s timely. Don’t drag your feet on it. Get in there and get it done. When you linger or delay, it can convey lack of urgency.
  2. It starts with an acknowledgment of who’s at fault. “I owe you an apology” can be hard to say, but it’s oh-so-refreshing to hear.
  3. It focuses on the other person, and the harm done or the pain they must feel, and much less so on you and the reasons for your actions. (Unless those would really matter. Check them out with a third party first.) Many people get this part wrong, which makes apologies sometimes feel or sound self-serving, which frankly just rankles further, and increases distance. (“When you’re explaining, you’re losing” — a successful trial attorney used to say. And you are: both good will, and your intended focus, the other person.)
  4. It includes your actual remorse. If this is hard to get to, work on it. The “sorry if I’ve…” intro harms far more than helps. There’s no “if” about it. You did. And the other person knows it. So own it.
  5. It volunteers repair work for the future. This offer can be as creative, or as thoughtful, as you like. But it’s often a needed element. How are you going to keep whatever it was from happening again? Come up with a plan. “I analyze our (marital) fights like they’re game films,” a football fan told me once. He figured if he was going to go through the pain, he might as well make it productive for learning how to do things differently in the future.

It ain’t over til it’s over

This is a part people seem to have trouble with: How soon does the relationship get restored? Well, that’s actually at the prerogative of the person who’s been wronged. Sometimes it takes longer than you want, by a lot. But the important thing is, if you’re really serious about being sorry, have you cleared out all the detritus with the person yet? It’s up to them to say when that work is finished. We, those of us in the wrong, are often in a hurry to get it over with as quick as we can. But really, the timing is up to the person we’ve hurt. We can check in with them, turn it to a dialogue from a monologue.

That elusive “forgiveness” piece

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, but forgiveness can feel like that too. Where is it? Is it an essential element of repairing the rift, or is it optional? Does it have to be negotiated directly, or can it safely be assumed from the conflict being over? So many questions. We’re often vague on this piece because we circle around it too much. I’ve apologized, but am I forgiven? And how would I know?

Focused on using data as a tool in research & policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad. Ph.D. student.

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