January 13th, 2023

What Makes a Good Apology

Oftentimes in my line of work, someone needs to make an apology. Someone said something they shouldn’t have, an argument was had with a boost from alcohol, or someone skipped their stress relief until it all boiled over into an angry outburst. Or maybe you just mindlessly put your foot in your mouth. Whatever the case may be, not all apologies are effective or helpful. So today let’s take a look at what makes a good apology.

First, a good apology is about your own behavior. You are sorry for a thing you did. You are sorry for the words you used, or an unhelpful behavior, or a bad habit. You are sorry for being late, or sorry for forgetting something. Own your behavior and apologize for it. What happens too often is people skip this step, and move straight to rationalizing their behavior. You can’t explain the behavior if you don’t admit that the behavior happened. You absolutely, under no circumstances, should ever apologize for someone else’s feelings. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. If that is your best attempt at an apology, then go back to the drawing board to figure out what actions led to those feelings, and apologize for the action or behavior. Don’t apologize for someone else, “I’m sorry you did this, so then I did that” isn’t owning your own behavior, it’s blaming someone else and not taking responsibility for your own behavior. If anyone tries to pass off these phrases as apologies, kindly inform them that they need to apologize for their own behaviors, otherwise it’s not an apology, or at worst it’s gaslighting.

Second, a good apology is genuine. Apologies are not get out of trouble free cards, nor are they restitutions. An apology is just an acknowledgement of something that could have gone better. If you struggle to say the word “sorry,” then do your own mental work to analyze what could have gone better, and then apologize for whatever you did instead of that better option. Many people struggle with an apology, but most people are comfortable admitting an interaction could have gone better. Start there if you need to, and work backwards to find something you can genuinely say sorry about. I am a trained therapist with nearly 15 years of experience, I teach other people how to do all of this, and I still am able to find something to apologize for whenever my wife and I have an argument. If I can find a mistake each and every time I fight, then so can you. Find something you can be genuine about and own it. 

Third, talk about why it won’t happen again. This part is tricky, because we are habitual creatures, and just promising to not do something typically isn’t enough for behavior change. If you did the mental work prior to starting your apology, you should be able to identify what you could have done better. From there, you can build a blueprint for how things can go better in the future. Again, don’t apologize for someone else in this process, keep it about you, since you only have control over yourself. “I’m sorry I said that, it was incredibly rude. I was frustrated and it’s not right for me to take it out on you. I will be better in the future by taking a walk instead of lashing out. I’m sorry.” By putting into words what you will do differently in the future, your brain is already practicing its plan for the future. You have one mental repetition just by saying it out loud.  

Lastly, keep it simple. Don’t go into big flowery promises of everlasting love and huge guarantees of how it will all be different down the road. Just acknowledge your poor behavior, say how you can do better in the future, and apologize. If the person you are apologizing to has thoughts of things to say, then do your best to listen and not to argue. If you are apologizing you acknowledge that a mistake was made, and mistakes come along with the opportunity to learn something new, so listen and learn to create new understanding. This will also help you and this other person to create a new interactional pattern for next time.

And bonus pro tip, whoever apologizes first wins. If you’re waiting for an apology, apologize first. Couples often each have something to apologize for, and someone owning it and starting that process often (but not always) opens the door for the other person to apologize as well. So, don’t let that be your motivation to apologize, but the pattern that healthy couples exhibit is early apologies and getting back on track quickly, so try to emulate what healthy couples do on the regular, and then you can also be a healthy couple. Nifty, huh?