As much as I strive to be kind, there are days when I fail miserably. I’ll wake up in a bad mood, the kids will be cranky, and a million little things won’t go my way. My hormones will be unstable, the budget won’t balance, and I’ll get some terrible news. Life will weigh me down – it happens to all of us.
When I’m feeling less than pleasant, I am more likely to make mistakes. I lose my patience. I say things that are unkind. It’s often unintentional, but nonetheless, I hurt others.
Whether it’s my friend, my colleague, my spouse, my children, or even a stranger – no one deserves to be treated unkindly because I am having a bad day. So it’s been important for me to learn a lesson in retroactive kindness – to learn how to truly apologize.
It’s never an easy thing to do. Admitting you were wrong and owning up to your bad actions is a humbling experience. A true apology leaves you vulnerable and exposed and oh so uncomfortable. But it also leaves you with a better understanding of yourself and others, and hopefully will give you the empathy to avoid the same hurtful path in the future.
Here are my 5 uncomfortable steps to a sincere apology, from someone who’s had to eat their fair share of humble pie:
1. Name what you did wrong. Don’t just say: “I’m sorry you got hurt.” That’s not owning up to your actions. Instead say: “I’m sorry I called you naïve” or “I’m sorry I shoved past you.” Be specific about your actions and why you are apologizing for your behavior.
Even more importantly, don’t project your actions as someone else’s fault. “I’m sorry you made me act that way” is not an apology at all. No one can make you react a certain way. You are the one responsible for your actions and words.
2. Use empathy. Maybe your actions wouldn’t have hurt you, but the fact is that they hurt someone else. Acknowledge their feelings as legitimate. Try to see things their way, and let them know you understand their hurt. For example: “I’m sorry I showed up for dinner so late. I know it made you feel unimportant, and I should have respected your time more.”
Usually people get hurt because you are putting yourself first, so make sure you put yourself in their shoes when you’re apologizing.
3. Make it all about you. If a fight has erupted, and you’re the first to come forward and admit you were wrong, keep the apology all about you. Don’t focus on what the other person did wrong or how they provoked your actions. Pointing out the other person’s faults and demanding a reciprocal apology will undermine everything else you say. If you’re only saying sorry so they will say sorry too, you need to rethink your reasons for apologizing in the first place.
4. Keep explanations brief. You should definitely think about the root reason that you were unkind before you apologize. Like I said before, no one can make you react a certain way, so whatever the other person did is irrelevant. Maybe you were feeling insecure about yourself or maybe you were under a lot of stress at work or maybe you were feeling a bit jealous.
You can explain yourself if the reason is relevant, but keep it brief and remember that it doesn’t justify your behavior – and say so. “I was stressed out about my project deadline, but that doesn’t make it okay for me to yell at you. I’m so sorry I acted that way.”
5. Let it go. Once you’ve apologized, it’s time to take a cue from Frozen and let it go. What happens next isn’t up to you. As hard as it may be to put yourself out there and truly apologize, the fact is no one owes you their forgiveness. It’s not something that can be earned. Forgiveness is a gift, and quite frankly, one you never deserve.
Don’t try to force someone to accept your apology. If the other person doesn’t want to repair the relationship, respect their decision. Let go of any resentment and anger, and once again, try to see things their way. You can only do so much before it’s time to let it go.