If you want to have healthy relationships that last, there is one skill you must absolutely master.
The funny thing is, you were probably never taught the most effective way to apologize.
Lucky for you, I have a lot of practice with apologies... maybe even the requisite 10k hours worth that would qualify me as an expert.
So buckle up. I'm about to take you on a wild ride through Apologytown!
It's About More Than Being Sorry
Take a moment and think... what's the purpose of an apology?
Is it to absolve yourself of blame? Is it to avoid the consequences of your actions or to escape punishment? Is it so you can stop feeling guilty?
If these are the motivating factors behind your apology, your'e doing it wrong!
The purpose of an apology is to heal, repair and restore a relationship that has been damaged.
As a kid you're taught that an apology is saying, "I'm sorry."
Over time, those two words became the backbone of every apology. They were supposed to magically remove any harm, hurt feelings, or damage that you caused through your actions and words.
You say those words then act shocked when the people you've hurt continue to suffer.
"I said I'm sorry! What more do you want from me!?"
Here's the deal. I want you to forget that those two words exist.
They don't mean anything anymore.
"I'm sorry" doesn't magically make emotional or physical pain evaporate into thin air.
"I'm sorry" isn't the analog version of CTRL+Z that can undo our mistakes.
"I'm sorry" doesn't help us accomplish our goal of healing, repairing or restoring a relationship.
Often the words "I'm sorry" do more damage than good. We treat them like a magic healing potion (like the Grandpa uses Windex on My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but magic like this doesn't exist. There simply isn't a magic word that makes pain go away... and when we assume there is, it leaves our partner feeling hurt and invalidated and alone.
3 Steps to a REAL Apology
Now that you've ditched the ineffective, meaningless, and often hurtful "I'm sorry" strategy, I'm going to give you a strategy to apologize in a way that heals, uplifts, and connects you to the people you love.
Step 1 - Take Responsibility For Your Actions
When you hurt someone, it's typically a result of something you said or did... or something you didn't say or didn't do that you said you would.
Instinct would have you avoid the blame, and make up all sorts of excuses for your behavior, or even become defensive and try to shift the blame back on your partner.
"Sorry I'm late... traffic."
"I know I said I'd pick up the laundry, but my boss called me on the way home, and I just forgot."
"Yeah, I said some mean stuff, but I was really angry... and you were being a big jerk and you deserved it!"
Remember, your traffic didn't make the promise to show up on time. Your boss didn't make the promise to pick up the laundry. And your anger didn't make the promise to be kind.
Avoiding accountability for your own actions is just bad form.
Instead say, "I screwed up. I made a promise and I broke it. It's my fault."
Step 2 - Feel Their Pain
When you do something (or don't do something) and an apology is warranted, you rarely take the time to understand the real consequences of your actions. You make the assumption that the sadness, anger, or upset is a direct result of the thing you did wrong.
Most of the time this assumption is way off base. Here's an example.
Let's say I tell my wife, "Hey babe! I'm going to be home from work to pick you up for our date at 5:30 tonight."
Then, for whatever reason -- I get stuck in traffic, or I get a last minute phone call, or I just lose track of time -- I show up late.
My wife is pissed.
Logically I make the assumption, "Oh, she's upset because I'm late," so my first instinct is to say, "Hey honey, I'm sorry I was late..." followed by an explanation and excuse for my behavior. (Remember how this is a big no-no from the section above?)
In my brain, this tactic is supposed to free me of all responsibility and erase all harm.
But I avoid that instinct which most likely would just have makes things worse. (VICTORY!)
Instead, I take responsibility then seek some understanding. "Babe, I screwed up. I'm sorry. I know I'm late. And I see that you're upset. I didn't mean to hurt you, but I know I did. Tell me what you're experiencing or thinking or feeling. I want to understand the effect my choices had on you."
I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it's actually a beautiful offering to your partner.
This simple act of seeking understanding will open up a door and demonstrate that the simple act of breaking a promise and showing up late can have a much more profound and negative impact on your relationship than you thought.
You'll hear things like:
"I have been really looking forward to spending time with you, and when you showed up late I just felt like I wasn't important. Your work just seems like it means more to you than our relationship. I feel really lonely. I really miss you."
"I felt like I couldn't trust you. I want to know that my husband will always be there for me. Lately you've dropped the ball on a lot of little things... I sometimes ask myself if I can't rely on you for the little things, can I really rely on you for the big things? I want to be able to trust you, but when you break your promises, I get scared that I won't be able trust you at all in the future."
"When you didn't show up on time and I didn't hear from you, I was scared that you were hurt or that something had happened. I can't imagine my life without you. I love you so much and I worried that I had lost you."
When you take a minute to really listen to the impact your actions and words have, it gives you an opportunity to be feel your partner's pain. You're act of empathy and understanding act as two of the key ingredients to creating connection and intimacy and trust... something that you lost when you screwed up.
See how we're restoring the relationship!? Isn't this cool?
Step 3 - Make A New Commitment
Now that you've taken responsibility for your actions, and really taken time to understand the consequences of those actions, it's time to make a plan to move forward with more trust and connection.
Have a conversation with your partner about what you can do to rebuild trust and help them feel more loved and respected.
Tell them what you plan to do to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Create a new set of commitments, agreements, and promises that will leave your relationship fortified and protected... then keep them!
Practice Makes Perfect
Honestly, it's really hard to resist the decades of instincts and conditioning that come up when you screw up. I get it.
I still catch myself saying, "I'm sorry," in the hopes that it will fix everything, or making excuses for my behavior.
The best way to really master this new form of apology is to use it all the time, with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations.
Practicing these 3 steps will make your relationships work so much better!
Take ownership... be responsible for your actions.
Listen to your partner tell you about the pain you caused. Feel their pain.
Make a new commitment to be better, to change, and to improve.
There will be less resentment, grudges, anger, and disappointment. Even when you screw up, you'll be reinforcing how important your partner is to you, and resolving any doubts, insecurities, or worries they may have.
Use the recipe! Make it your own! Create something awesome with it.
Let me know what you think about it in the comments!