Just a Thought: There is a Right Way to Apologize


The classic 1970’s movie “Love Story” featured a popular line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  This concept may have worked for the big screen, but it is totally wrong and does not work in real life.  To use “love” as an excuse not to apologize would ultimately result in the breakdown of a relationship or a falling out of “love.”  Apologies are a necessary and critical part of any close relationship.   

There is a right way to apologize.  It is really quite simple.  It comes from the heart in a soft or normal tone of voice with the words, “I am sorry.”  You are thinking, “That is really a novel thought, Rick.”  Well, maybe it would help if I cover some ways not to apologize.

Parenting can really be a challenge.  When our two kids were younger from time to time one of our children would do something to the other that is not appropriate.  My wife Tanya and I found ourselves often saying, “apologize to your brother,” or “apologize to your sister.”  Sometimes their response was a loud and rude, “Sor-ryyyyy!”  When we hear an apology like this we have to stop our child and remind him or her how to apologize.  We remind them in order for an apology to be sincere, it needs to include the word, “I.”

To spout out the word in such a disrespectful manner does nothing to indicate a remorseful attitude.  Further, for an apology to truly be an apology, it has to come from the heart of the person communicating it.  How does one speak from the heart without using the word “I”?

Another wrong way to apologize is to use the words, “I am sorry, but...”  What happens after the word “but” is a justification for doing a wrong act.  For example, “I am sorry, but I didn’t realize you were so upset,” or “I am sorry, but he never told me you felt that way.”  In each instant, the apology seeks justification in the moment after the “sorry” word is spoken.

Worse yet is to try and apologize with the phrase, “I am sorry, but you...”  For example, “I am sorry, but you yelled at me first,” or “I am sorry, but you shouldn’t have told him that.”

Basically, throwing the word “but” in after the apology to a large degree negates the entire apology.

My idea for writing this column came the morning after an evening when I was tired and I was very short with my wife.  She was doing her best to be kind and understanding to me, but despite her best efforts, it wasn’t enough.  I drifted off to sleep exhausted from the busy day without making things right with her.

I generally wake up at around 3:30 a.m. and she doesn’t get up until 6:00 a.m.  When I woke up the next morning I felt bad about my behavior.  I knew I had not treated her fairly the evening before.  I wanted to wake her and apologize immediately.  I decided that it would be better to let her sleep and to apologize to her after she woke up in a few hours.

My first thought was to use the old, “I am sorry, but...” technique and to explain what happened that day and how it had left me so tired and exhausted.  I then thought, if she had just left me alone, I wouldn’t have been so rude to her.  This line of thought would lead to the conclusion that although I was sorry, it was really her fault after all, not mine.

I finally decided what I needed to say to her was simply, “I am sorry,” with no effort to rationalize my unacceptable attitude.  I decided my behavior was my own fault, not hers.  I decided there was really no explanation or valid reason that would justify my being short with her.  I am accountable for my own behavior.  I control my behavior.  If my behavior is unacceptable, it is my fault.

When she woke up, my first words to her were a sincere, “I am sorry for being short with you last night.” That was it, nothing more, nothing less.  By apologizing without qualification, this opened the door for her to share her thoughts and to explain how she felt as a result of my actions.  I had already decided I needed to listen to her and not “trump” her with my the world through my eyes.  It was me, not her who was wrong.  It was me who needed to listen, not her.  I was wrong and both she and I knew it.

Too often we self justify our wrong behavior.  Through rationalization we seek to make our wrongs someone else’s.  We fail to apologize when an apology is needed.  Or we qualify or dilute our apology by seeking to explain away why we acted incorrectly.  Too often our apology becomes another way to attack the victim of our wrong by attempting to throw the cause of our improper behavior onto the individual wronged.

Apologies are necessary and critical in any close relationship.  And there is a correct way to apologize.

My challenge to you is to recognize and sincerely use the proper way to apologize.  If you have done something you know is wrong, don’t be so insecure with yourself so as not to be able to apologize.  If it is truly from your heart, don’t use the “sorry” word without the “I” word.  If it is truly from your heart, don’t use apology words then erase them by using the “you” word and making what happened the recipient’s fault.

It is not an apology if the words are used to dump the cause of the action back on the receiver.  If it is truly from the heart, avoid the “but” word and avoid qualifying the apology with an inappropriate self-justification and rationalization.

When you wrong another, and you truly are remorseful and regretful, approach the person and simply say, “I am sorry.”  This is quite simply the right way to apologize.

Just a thought...