Keys to An Effective Apology

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Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

“All I want is an apology.”

Even with the best of intentions, it’s easy to mis-step. You’re a few minutes late. You forget to bring home the radishes even though you promised. You get frustrated and raise your voice. You kick off your shoes by the door and someone trips over them. You finish someone’s sentence for them, and they’re miffed.


So you apologize, right?

It sounds simple. But apologies, for most people, are tricky.

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My clients Lisa and Jeff had been negotiating their morning division of labor, which included getting two kids up and to school on time.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Lisa said. “And you slept late again. Don’t you care what it’s like for me in the mornings? Don’t you want to be an equal partner in this relationship?”

“I worked half the night, so I slept late. I’m sorry!” Jeff sounded exasperated.

“You don’t sound sorry,” Lisa observed. “Just forget it, okay?”

“Can we pause here for a minute,” I asked. The apology was making things worse. Why did it go off track?


Watch out for the “swinging volley”

A swinging volley is an aggressive shot in a tennis game. Instead of letting the ball bounce, the receiver runs toward the net and slams the ball while it’s still in the air. If the move is successful, the ball is very hard to return.

Sometimes people avoid apologies because they get a swinging volley response like this:

“You don’t sound sorry.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“If you’re sorry, why do you keep doing it?”

But the trouble isn’t always with the receiver. Sometimes an apology is hard to believe. When there’s a disconnect, even a small one, in a close relationship, your partner is looking for something personal, something that lets her know that she’s important.

So imagine how it feels to hear:

“I’m sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“I said I’m sorry already! Can’t we just move on?”

The regret doesn’t come across.

The Automatic Apology – and why it doesn’t work

Often apologies don’t work because the person apologizing is uncomfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, it’s harder to find the right words. The person you’re speaking to might graciously accept what you say, but they might volley them back at you.

You might end up feeling like you want to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible. So you jump to something short and automatic.

Sometimes automatic is fine. According to Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” almost half of what we do each day is automatic. When you shift gears in a car, you don’t want to have to think about it. An automatic response improves your driving. In tennis, the ability to nail that “swinging volley” improves your game.

But in conversation, automatic feels impersonal.

“How are you?” “Fine.”

“Thank you!” “No problem.”

Those short conversations help us briefly connect with each other throughout the day. But there isn’t any depth. The words aren’t meant to repair. But an apology is, and it needs something more.

Anatomy of an Effective Apology

To apologize well, you need to first recognize that you were part of the problem. Even if your part was small, it helped create the disconnect, and you need to take part in reconnecting.

Second, don’t get caught up in what your partner does – whether or not she accepts her share of the blame, or how she responds. An apology is an act of integrity. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Third, make sure that your apology includes all three parts – bid, ownership, and action.

A “bid” is an introduction. It’s the part where you say, “hey, I’m sorry about…” or “I wanted to apologize for…” or “I didn’t mean to….”

Ownership is where you acknowledge your part of the problem. It’s not an explanation, which can come across as a “brush-off” or an excuse. Rather, ownership recognizes that what you did had an impact: “I left the counter a mess and I know it’s hard to make dinner in a messy kitchen.”

The final part is action – a statement of commitment, and of what you will do differently in the future: “I’ll sweep the floor right after dinner, so I don’t forget; “ or “How about we check in with each other when either of us wants to spend more than $50?”

In the couples therapy session, Jeff and I spent a few minutes crafting an apology. When we were finished, he said to Lisa,

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you in the morning. I overslept, and I know how hard it is to get the kids out the door. I’m going to work on getting more organized before I leave work so I don’t bring last minute projects home with me.”

Lisa felt acknowledged. The apology worked.

Apologies build connection

An effective apology isn’t automatic. It takes awareness, thought, and energy. To apologize well you need to set aside your need to be right, and instead show that you regret your part in the misunderstanding.

It’s not about outcome. It’s about doing your part to mend the relationship. Apologies demonstrate that the person you are apologizing to matters to you. Apologies show compassion, promote understanding, and help avoid future misunderstandings.

The next time you forget to bring home the radishes, apologize effectively. Apologize, own your part, and make a commitment.

Each time you do this, you reduce relationship stress and build a stronger connection with your partner. Effective apologies are worth it. Are you constantly caught in a loop of overthinking? Take our online overthinking test to gain insight into your thought patterns.

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