Is it time to apologize?
Our relationships can get stuck in impasse when there’s been a difficult incident and neither of us is willing to apologize for our part in it. A sincere apology can go a long way in patching a strained relationship and making it more fulfilling. Let’s focus on relationships with those involving ongoing non-work relationships; apologizing at work has some different dynamics that we’ll deal with in a later column.
When looking at a situation that didn’t go well, it’s important to sort out our part in the problem first. We may have made mistakes, communicated unskillfully, or just been crabby. It can be hard to admit to ourselves that we messed-up, but we must do so before we can apologize to another.
Don’t take responsibility for things that are not your fault out of guilt or appeasement. A strong apology expresses regret for our inappropriate behavior, but does not denigrate us. Allow the other person to take responsibility for their part in the situation.
Once you have identified and admitted to yourself how you were at fault, why not be the first to apologize for your part in the problem? We often fear that apologizing is a sign of weakness, but it takes courage to admit shortcomings. Just because we accept responsibility for our faults doesn’t automatically excuse the other person’s mistakes, but they will be much more likely to admit to their part if you admit yours first.
Admit the fault simply and directly. Take responsibility for mistakes you made, unkind things you said, or nasty tones you used. A good start might be: “I’m sorry for the tension between us, and I’m sorry for my part in it.” Then go ahead and detail what you feel your part in it was.
As much as you can, acknowledge the consequences to the other person for your fault, and perhaps even offer to do something to help make up for the harm you may have caused. Back up your apology with positive change. Sincerely commit to doing your best to avoid the same mistake in the future. If you continue behaving the same way, even if you apologize each time, people will begin to doubt your word or believe that you’re not sincere in your regret.
Avoid the “I’m sorry, but…” trap of switching from apology to justification. Expressing regret is not about defending our mistakes. If admitting fault is tough, it’s even tougher to say we’re sorry, then simply shut up and listen! Allow the other person time to bring up their own fault, or, if they’re not forthcoming, you might gently bring up what you see as their part.
Accept the other person’s apology explicitly. Saying “Thank you, I accept your apology”, rather than just “That’s okay” signals that you’re ready to accept what happened.
Then let it go. Just let it go. Shift to more enjoyable or productive ways of interacting with this person.
What a relief it can be to apologize and receive an apology! When someone apologizes to us, that tight little block of anger and hurt can all of a sudden begin to melt and drain away. We feel more trust and connection with them, and that helps the hurt drain away, leading to an upward spiral of closeness. Admitting mistakes gets easier the more we do it, too.
Apologizing and moving on is helpful at any time, but especially during the holiday season, when friction with others often increases. Gather your courage, say you’re sorry, and enjoy the holidays more.