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.

My boss was acutely aware of the many socio-emotional as well as legal costs that litigation instead of an apology would incur. He regularly talked about people who lost their health, their families, their homes — truly, he was a real believer in the alternative dispute resolution process, of which mediation was just one example. He often preached that “justice delayed” meant “justice denied” to individuals and families, and part of the beauty of the program he designed, which later was adopted by the local court system, was that it would shorten the wait time for a case to be heard, from five years to three if I remember correctly. But the larger lesson for me was, how much the initial conflict represented an opportunity to do the right thing (apologize), in a timely fashion — or drag the whole thing out, once both sides ramped up their sense of having been wronged. Good things wouldn’t come out of polarization, and often what would have solved or averted a lengthy and expensive dispute — was that simplest and most affordable of all actions, simply owning what you’d done wrong, and apologizing sincerely to those you had hurt.

It’s funny how often in the years since then I’ve had a chance to reflect on his wisdom. Apologies can be tough to give, but oh so valuable to receive. The right ones restore a relationship, and clear the slate. The lack of one, or introducing the wrong one, keeps things festering, extends the life of the conflict, and frequently often severs the chance to ever make things right.

So what really is a good apology? We often can recognize it — feel it— by what it is not. But at its core it is:

  • Timely
  • Sincere
  • Non-evasive

Here, as with so many things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Dragging your feet on apologizing, when you know you’re in the wrong, conveys how little you value the person who you’ve wronged, or treasure the relationship. They notice the delay, and if and when you do apologize, the fact you took too long to do so dilutes the value of what you ultimately did. So don’t wait for the flowery words and the big bouquet so much as be quick to get the job done — jump in and say that you understand you were wrong, in a way that conveys that you mean it.

It was interesting to look up “Sorry!” in the dictionary. Apparently it’s been around since before the 12th century. The etymology, above, leads me to believe that a good apology has gotta hurt — maybe that’s why they’re so difficult to do! — and as a corollary, that if you’re not sore, you’re not sorry.

But yes, an apology really ought to cost you something — at least in terms of emotional labor. The other person already feels dinged by whatever happened, you’re merely bringing attention back to what happened — and owning the part that you did wrong.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family where people seemed …a tad unfamiliar with the practice… that I’ve become a connoisseur of the good apology, as well as a true believer in practicing them. And I had some early mentors and good teaching on this too.

An early boss, who I still adore, broke into one of my more circuitous attempts to deflect blame for whatever it was at the time that I was apologizing for with some pithy words I remember to this day. “No one cares what you did so much as what you’re going to do to make it right.” Ah yes, focus in the right direction. The present, and the future — not the past. Instinctively, many of our worst apologies focus on the past — and us! — so that they resemble excuses way more than blame-taking. Focus on what you’re going to do to make it right.

Truly, I was the Queen of Random Excuses back in the day, which seemed strongly related to my overall cluelessness and Life Chaos. Fortunately — or ideally — we grow out of that, but it’s often helped along by a kind friend or mentor who sets us straight on the path. The boss above clearly did that. I was frequently late for work and whatever my reason always seemed compelling to me at the time, so I was happy to share it. One day it was over it having snowed in New England where we lived, and the locks on my car were all frozen. Well, what’s a gal to do? I finally was able to break into my old hatchback through the trunk (oh, the visuals just keep on coming), crawl through to the front seat, and then drive around and around in circles in the parking lot, waiting for the wind I guess to blow the encrusted snow off the windshield, until I could see enough to drive or get out and use the scrapers. (Folks in sunshine states will be unfamiliar with the many weather-related excuses a good snowstorm can provide.)

I’m pretty sure that fully i-n-s-a-n-e episode was the precursor to our clipped conversation, but I also remember afterwards the sweet note my boss left me on my desk, along with a little spray can of lock de-icer. A good apology-recipient will also do their part to ensure the relationship is restored, unless you did something really egregious — or arrestable. And even then, some of the most forgiving types probably manage to convey the right balance of tough love there too. (Restorative justice has grown up as a whole field in the meantime.)

So what makes for a good apology?

Merriam-Webster tells us that apology — at least in the sense of owning that you’d done something wrong, versus a formal defense of someone’s ideas — didn’t come into the English language until the end of the 16th century, with the first usage being William Shakespeare’s. Huh.

But the idea probably goes back much further. The Bible, in II Corinthians 7:11, contrasted worldly sorrow — the “sorry I got caught!” essence with which we’re all too familiar, with the deeper, more sincere and responsible version referred to as godly sorrow. It’s a great list of actions that go along with really getting it. While my faith may have waxed and waned over the years, this list has always retained its punch and relevance. It’s rare to see even a portion of this accomplished, let alone all of it. But how refreshing when it is…

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.

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.

What else is needed, to make it right? Sometimes the person needs to take a bit to think about that. But they’re the focus here, and they will know, on their own timetable.

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?

Well, ask.

“I’m sorry I’ve wronged you. (Insert whatever else seems essential, and others-focused). Will you forgive me?” can be a powerful model to follow.

If they do, it’s safe to say the conflict’s over. (And less but still importantly, if they say that, they should mean it too. If they don’t yet, perhaps they’re not ready to extend forgiveness.)

If they can’t yet, either the relationship (work, personal, whatever) might not be salvageable (it happens), the other person simply needs more time, or, you may need to mean it more. See above list of what sincere remorse includes. There’s always room for improvement.

But the beauty of all this? The payoff in the restored relationship, in which often not just one but both people have learned something.

Once the heart feels the sincerity behind the apology, then the head can listen to the rest,” a wise friend suggests.

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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