I’m sorry: The 3 A’s of apology

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“I’m sorry” is a phrase most of us will be lucky to hear thousands of times in our lifetime. And if we are a half decent person, we will be the one saying sorry on many occasions as well. But despite how many times we hear or say this phrase, over time it seems to lose its meaning for both us and the person on the other end. What many of us have unknowingly longed for is a way to make these words actually accomplish their intention. This is exactly what the following three steps to apologizing will point out. But first, we must revisit how apologies typically play out.

The common “sorry”

Anyone who parents or has spent any time with children, all know what a forced apology looks like. They offer a quick or begrudged “sorry” before going on about their business like nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, many adults are also guilty of this very same thing. Much of the time, sorry has much less to do with genuine concern for how the other person was wronged; even when we believe it is. The saying popularly used to express this is, “you’re only sorry you were caught.”

Sometimes what can make us feel more uncomfortable than any harm we may have inflicted are social consequences. In this way, what we fear more than disappointing someone, is retaliation from either that person or others who disapprove of our behavior. So what becomes our natural response is to make the discomfort go away as quickly as possible. Thus, we utter the obligatory “I’m sorry” so everyone will get off our backs. The telltale sign of this is actually getting mad when our sorry does not instantly resolve the conflict. At this point we now act as if we are the victim rather than the wronged person. And although a forced sorry may relieve the social tension, what it will always fail to do is cause us to truly feel sorry.

Another key problem is even when we want to be sorry, we do not always feel it. As children, most of us were taught sorry is a part of good manners like “please” and “thank you.” So rather than being a sincere expression of our remorse, it usually becomes a formality. And like any formality, it becomes more of a habit than something carrying real meaning.

Most of the “sorry” we dish out is about one word which begins with an A. That word is “avoid.” We want to avoid consequences. We want to avoid social discomfort. And most of all, we want to avoid discussing the details of what we have done. So the question then becomes, how do we ensure our apology is meaningful instead of a hollow “I’m sorry?” This brings us to the three A’s every apology should include.

Admit fault

It is easy to throw out a quick sorry with nothing attached. But when we are intentional about naming exactly what we did and where we messed up, another layer of guilt comes across. It is more likely to be genuine since it requires us to reflect on the mistake we have made. For some of us this is pretty huge, and others it is no biggie. What then takes this up another notch is to also admit our fault without attaching a “but” to our statement. Any apology which includes an excuse to partially or complete justify our actions is on the same level as an empty “sorry;” if not a lower.

When an apology includes, “I’m sorry…but,” it will successfully reverse any regret we express up to that point. Yes there may be two sides to the story and we can address that later, but the initial discussion should only focus on what it is we have done. If we fail to do this first and foremost, the other person may not even care to hear whatever legitimate explanation there might be for our behavior. They will instead raise their defenses and reject anything else we have to say. A good way to make sure we stick to our goal is using “I” statements and avoiding the word “you.” This forces us to keep the focus on our mistakes without pointing blame elsewhere.

Acknowledge the hurt

Even though the first part of a real apology emphasizes the word “I” to focus on our wrong, the second part is nearly the opposite. This portion includes a lot of “you.” But instead of talking about what the other person did, we acknowledge how our actions affected them. The goal here is to convey empathy for what we put them through. An apology cannot express much concern for someone else if all we are concerned with is ridding ourselves of guilt. And now that we have admitted what we did wrong, we must also try to see things from the other’s point of view. We must consider how we would feel if put in the same position as we put them. Like the previous part, doing so increases our potential to experience genuine remorse for wrongdoing or careless actions.

Apply a solution

The first two components are relatively easy compared to this final portion. This is because we merely recalled what has already taken place. However, finding a way to remedy the situation can require much more thought and effort. If the mistake happened because of a recurring character flaw, we must present a way to deal with that flaw. If it really was a one-time type of incident, we should explain why we now see the error of the decision (s) which led to the negative outcome. And of course if what we did caused damage of any sort (financial, emotional, etc…), we need to find a way to fix or repay it. Failure to do this part of an apology is what has the greatest potential of making everything else superficial. Because even if we show we are sorry in other ways, it begins to fall on deaf ears when we find ourselves apologizing for the same thing again and again.

Final words

Is the process of admit, acknowledge and apply far more involved than a quick “sorry?” Most definitely. Is it going to make us feel very uncomfortable when we do it? It should. Will we be less likely to commit the same offense again after putting ourselves in such a vulnerable position? Very likely. And when everything is said and done, is this not what the purpose of saying we are sorry was meant to be in the first place?

By Corey Dorsey

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