Making Apologies

Pencil sketch of two people standing a few feet apart

The Grammar Girl podcast did a great show this week on how to write an apology.  For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write a post about making tough apologies, so I thought I’d piggyback on Grammar Girl’s discussion.  The show advised listeners to avoid four kinds of non-apologies (the “if” apology, the passive voice apology, the reverse apology, and the florid fauxpology) and to follow a formula for apologizing effectively:

  • Acknowledge the offense clearly
  • Explain it effectively
  • Restore the offended parties’ dignity
  • Assure them they’re safe from a repeat offense
  • Express shame and humility
  • Make appropriate reparation

(Credit to Dr. Aaron Lazare and his book On Apology.)

On more than one occasion, my big mouth has blurted out something insensitive that hurt someone’s feelings.  Apologizing is hard; none of us likes to admit we were wrong.  Rather than apologizing in the moment, I often conclude later that I need to say I’m sorry.  When I find myself replaying a conversation in my head, trying to justify what I said or convince myself that I was right despite the other person’s reaction, that’s usually a good indicator that it’s time to humble myself and acknowledge my mistake.

Most of the time, I prefer to write an apology letter or email rather than delivering it verbally.  Putting my apology into writing allows me to think about exactly what I want to say and gives the recipient some time to process the apology.  A written apology relieves him or her of the need to respond immediately and also avoids some of the awkwardness that may come with apologizing in person.

Accepting responsibility for our words and actions is important.  Though it sometimes seems easier to sweep things under a rug and pretend they never happened, allowing grievances to fester can cause our relationships to unravel.  If you don’t feel good about something you said or did to another person, you should tell them and try to make it right.  They may not accept your apology, but at least you will have opened a line of communication and let them know that you care about how they feel.  Acknowledging each other’s emotions and restoring trust is crucial to maintaining healthy relationships.  And if you’re the one who’s been hurt, try to be forgiving.  We all make mistakes.  Is this one really worth throwing away the relationship?

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