How to Apologize Like an Adult

In light of the recent mistakes made by people I respect or at least expected better of, I thought I would publish a blog on how to properly apologize. Because it’s obvious to me that this is not something many people know how to do properly or effectively.

I hope this helps some of you out there to become better at apologizing. And that it is a resource for those of you who are trying to talk to others about how to apologize correctly to explain how this stuff works and how vitally important it is.

Step One: Listen.

The first step in any apology is to listen to what the person(s) you have hurt are telling you. If someone says that you did something that hurt them (directly or indirectly), then it’s time to apologize. Listen carefully to what you did and decide whether you care enough about the people involved and the situation to apologize.

This is the step wherin you decide whether or not you are going to apologize at all. Not apologizing is always an option. But if you decide not to apologize, disengage here and tell the person(s) involved that you will not be apologizing. There is no need to drag people through insincerity in order to fulfill some bizarre social cue. If you don’t care to apologize: don’t.

Step Two: Apologize Sincerely.

An apology is not something you just do in the moment to get people off your back. It is not a way to stop an argument. An apology is the first part of a promise that you make to another person or group of people. That promise is that you see that you upset them, see why you upset them, and will endeavor not to upset them in the future.

I know I already said this, but it’s important: If you have no desire to deliver a sincere apology, then do not deliver one. There is nothing worse than an insincere apology. It doesn’t solve anything. And it doesn’t do anything other than erode your relationships by proving to the people around you that you do not care enough about them to really apologize when you have done something wrong.

So, if you are not willing to do the work that is inherent in making an apology, you don’t need to! There will be consequences for that, but some things are not worth working for. I don’t say that to be cruel. That’s OK! Being able to recognize when you are not willing to do a thing is an important part of being a human being. The important thing to remember is that no apology at all is better all around than an apology that is simply lip service.

But if you do decide to apologize, realize that that apology is a part of a larger set of behaviors that you are tying yourself into which include making changes to things you have done in order to ensure the fulfilling of a promise to another person.

Step Three: Apologize for the right thing.

This goes back to the listening step. Were you really listening? Did you hear what the person(s) you hurt were saying about why they were upset? Remember that what you think you did wrong and what they are asking that you apologize for may not be the same thing.

Here’s an example.

Bobby and Suzie just started dating. One night, Bobby goes out with Suzie and her friends. He doesn’t know anyone else at the outing. During the evening, Suzie spends a lot of time talking to John, which leaves Bobby at loose ends and uncomfortable for most of the evening. When they leave the group, Bobby says that he is upset that Suzie left him hanging the entire night with no one to talk to while she talked to John. Suzie realizes that Bobby wants an apology, but instead of apologizing for abandoning Bobby with a bunch of strangers, she infers that he is being jealous and says that she is sorry if he was jealous about her spending time with John.

That is not what Bobby was upset about, it’s what Suzie is reading into the situation. What Suzie needed to do was really listen to what Bobby was saying and apologize for what he told her he was upset about, not what she felt was “really the issue.”

This is a mistake that a lot of people make when apologizing. It’s easy to apologize for what we think the problem is rather than what the person is actively communicating. Don’t fall into this trap.

Step Four: Never say “but.”

Or any other type of qualifying language, really. When you qualify an apology with an explanation, it weakens the apology. Apologize unreservedly. Here’s an example based on our story above of the correct way to apologize:

Suzie: I’m sorry that I left you alone with people. I didn’t realize it would upset you so badly. I apologize.

Here is that apology with a but:

Suzie: I’m sorry that I left you alone with people, but it’s not like you couldn’t have interjected at any point. My friends are nice. You should have made an effort.

Do you see how apology one is much more meaningful and actually reads like an apology?

When you qualify your apology with a “but” at the end, you minimize the impact of the apology tremendously. Doing that can also make it seem to the person you are giving your apology that their actions are somehow to blame for your behavior. In short, it makes it seem like you don’t really care about your apology, which means you don’t care about the feelings of the person you hurt.

Step Five: Do not make the apology about you.

Of course the apology is about you. A little. But it’s not about you, if you get my meaning.

When you are apologizing, address your behavior succinctly and with clarity. Do not do the following:

Suzie: Well I’m sorry I’m not perfect! I’m sorry I can’t seem to give you enough attention so that you feel good about yourself. I’m sorry I suck.

This kind of thing is really unfair to the person you are apologizing to. When you make the apology about you and get upset as a response to another person being hurt by your actions, the other person is put in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with your upset. Which can lead to them comforting you rather than having their needs met. Which is not the goal of any good apology.

If feelings about yourself are brought up during the course of your apology, feel free to address them with the person later on, after a little time and distance have allowed the other person to get into a place where they can support you without compromising their own needs.

Step Six: Follow up.

Sometimes when you apologize, it will be necessary for you to follow up with some changes to your behavior or discussion of how to do things better. This is an excellent part of an apology, because it shows that you are willing to follow through on your promises. An apology is, at it’s root, a promise to examine your behavior and attempt to ensure that you do not repeat behavior that the people around you have found damaging.

So let’s use our above example to show how the follow up to an apology might go:

Suzie: Is there a way that I can ensure in the future that you are more socially comfortable? Would you like to bring a friend of yours to outings? Would a smaller group help? Do you just require more attention from me?

See how Suzie is trying to solve the problem in the future so that she can be more aware of Bobby’s emotional well-being? That’s quality apologizing right there.

Remember that, when a follow-up is needed, it doesn’t always have to happen right then. You can have space between the apology and the follow up. Sometimes that space is needed! When tempers are running high, as they are wont to be when an apology enters the mix, it is not always the best time to calmly discuss solutions to problems. Let everyone cool off a bit if you need to and do the follow-up when you are more relaxed and able to look at the situation from distance.

Step Seven: Follow through.

Remember how I said that an apology is a promise? Well here’s the part where you fulfill that promise. All of the things that we have gone over up until this point mean absolutely nothing if, when the situation that caused strife before comes up again, you repeat the bad behaviors when interacting with the people to whom you have previously apologized.

If Suzie takes Bobby out again and leaves him alone all night? That’s breaking her promise. And all the work that she did during her apology goes out the window when she proves to Bobby that she cannot live up to the things that she promises him when she apologizes.

If, however, Suzie makes sure that Bobby’s needs are met in subsequent instances where the spend time with her friends? Then she has proven to Bobby that she is a person worthy of his trust. It is only at that point that her apology becomes wholly successful.

Step Eight: Enjoy.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of having people around you who like and trust you. If you demonstrate to them when you make mistakes that you are willing to make up for them, that will only increase their liking and trust for you. Enjoy the happy feelings that come from doing the work to make your relationships stronger and healthier through a properly crafted apology.