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The right apology

A thoughtful apology can rebuild trust. A poor one just makes matters worse

Angry man standing with woman in background. Mature couple is having relationship difficulties, in brightly lit home.

Although Canadians are known for saying “sorry” even when someone else bumps into us, this is more of a reflex and a nicety than a genuine apology.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making real apologies, i.e. the ones that count when it comes to restoring the trust of those we’ve hurt or offended through our words and actions, we’re not all that good at it.

This is too bad because when genuine apologies are offered and accepted, they have the power to restore all kinds of damaged relationships, whether that’s between neighbours, spouses or people you work with, or between you and a business you have dealings with, or even between groups of people.

You can probably think of examples from your own life when you were angry but a heartfelt apology from the person who hurt you made all the difference in the world, whether it’s the business that got your order wrong, the spouse who forgot your big day, or the employee who said something thoughtless.

Dr. Guy Grenier. photo: Supplied

But the opposite is true too. When we fail to apologize, it’s like ignoring a fire, so the tiniest spark can turn into an out-of-control inferno, says Dr. Guy Grenier, a London, Ont. clinical psychologist and author of The 10 Conversations You Must Have Before You Get Married.

When you mix business and family the way farming does, especially with all of the stresses that come with it, knowing how to make effective apologies is essential.

Why? Most of us know of more than one farm family where brothers are no longer on speaking terms, or where husband and wife have divorced over unresolved conflict.

Get the words right

The basic apology is fairly simple, and it is always based on two essential components, says Grenier. First is an admission of error, followed by a demonstration of regret.

For bigger offenses, there’s also a need for restitution and making up for the offense.

Yet too many people don’t get it right, or the situation may just be too complex, which is when the science of apologizing comes to the rescue, and it’s easy to see why there are consultants today who specialize in helping companies, organizations and public figures create effective apologies.

For starters, it’s important to show insight into the other person’s feelings, says Grenier. He recommends using statements such as: “I can see how that would have been embarrassing, insulting, frightening, etc.”

There are many ways an apology can veer off course, continues Grenier. Apologies don’t work when they lack sincerity. And when you say, “I’m sorry if you were upset by what I said,” that isn’t really an apology.

Neither is an apology containing a “but.” When you say, “I’m sorry I said that, but I was angry,” you haven’t taken responsibility for the offense, says Grenier. The “but” discounts everything that came before it. And when the apologizer continues to do the offending behaviour, it only makes things worse.

Some people seem unable to apologize. They have bought into the myth that they don’t make mistakes, says Grenier. But understanding that no one is perfect is a basic human insight, he says.

Men, in particular, often have trouble apologizing. They have been socialized to think it’s not masculine to admit you were wrong. On the contrary, it takes courage to admit you aren’t perfect, says Grenier.

Montreal’s Richard Tawfik, part of the team that created the Perfect Apology website, says the need for apologies is greater than ever. “We are, as individuals and as a society, becoming increasingly self-absorbed, disconnected, disrespectful and lacking in empathy. It’s evident at a micro level and runs right through world politics,” he says.

Tawfik and his colleagues created the Perfect Apology website more than a decade ago when they saw a need that wasn’t being met. All of the team members had a need to apologize in their personal and business lives for a multitude of reasons but they didn’t have a guide or any reference materials.

With backgrounds in public relations, political science and international relations, they opted to research the topic and break it down into easy-to-digest bites which they share on their website.

Based on public demand, they even created a forum for people to post their apologies, although Tawfik points out these apologies have not been judged for their effectiveness.

Tawfik cautions that sometimes a poor apology can make a situation worse. “It may show the recipient that you don’t fully understand the situation or the harm you have caused.”

Getting at the real cause

Adeodata Czink. photo: Supplied

Adeodata Czink, an international etiquette consultant from Toronto, says that if you don’t understand why the person is upset, you are better off just saying so.

Then give the person an opportunity to explain.

Conversely, though, when you are on the receiving end of an apology, this is not the time for a lecture, explains Czink. Just say, “Thank you.”

Also avoid the temptation to make your apology via email, warns Czink. Apologies are best delivered in person. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone, but be sure to ask them if now is a good time to talk about it.

“Don’t use email… things are too easily misunderstood,” she says.

And if you don’t get the apology you want, Czink advises letting it go. Apology or not, if you don’t forgive the person, you are only hurting yourself. It’s like the old adage, she says: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Tawfik says the world needs more apologies, especially in these turbulent times. “We’re human and we make mistakes,” he says. “What we do after we make those mistakes is what’s important. Apologies are about self-reflection, responsibility, compassion and empathy — all things that would make this world a better place.”

Apology Dos and Don’ts

From Dr. Guy Grenier, clinical psychologist

The Dos

As a rule of thumb, the sooner you apologize, the better. “It’s like a fire. If you attack it right away, you can extinguish it. If you ignore it, it grows.”

Be sincere. Saying the words without meaning them doesn’t work.

Show insight into the wronged person’s thinking. “I can imagine that made you feel…”

The Don’ts

Behaviour is more powerful than words, says Grenier. “Talk is cheap. If you promise to change but don’t, you’ve now added insult to injury.”

Sincerity is essential so beware of what Grenier calls the “non-apology apology.” When you say, “I’m sorry you’re upset,” that isn’t a real apology. Or if you say, “I’m sorry, but I wasn’t thinking,” you’re only trying to shrug off responsibility.

Apology starters*

Adapted from Adeodata Czink, etiquette consultant, Toronto:

  • “Sorry, I was out of line.”
  • “Sorry, that came out wrong.”
  • “I’m sorry I offended you.”
  • “What was I thinking?”
  • “I know what I said was hurtful. I’m sorry.”
  • “I must apologize. I don’t know what came over me. How can I make up for it?”

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Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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