“I was wrong. I’m sorry”—these words can have a magical effect on a struggling relationship. But if we fail to show empathy, the apology will sound fake or hurt the offended person even more.

The journalist Annalisa Barbieri recounts a not particularly pleasant encounter with an aunt she hadn’t seen in twenty years. Many good things had happened in her life in the intervening years, including the writing of a book and the birth of a child, but the only thing the aunt saw fit to comment on was the new mother’s excess weight. The remark came in the form of an insulting question to Annalisa, but also to her cousin Mary, as the aunt suggested that there was some kind of weight competition between them.

When she was told that the question was offensive, a few words followed that tried to sound like an apology, but only managed to irritate her further: “I’m sorry if you chose to take offence at what I said.”

We often hurt others, especially those closest to us. Sometimes it’s a small offence done in carelessness or haste, sometimes it’s a major mistake or betrayal that can shatter the foundation of a relationship. There are many variables that come into play when it comes to repairing a relationship, but the way we apologise makes a difference, even when the old closeness is no longer possible.

Apologies, the glue of relationships

When we say “I’m sorry” we are using the simplest yet most powerful words that can not only rebuild relationships and heal hurt feelings, but also right historical wrongs, says Karina Schumann, who teaches psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Having studied the factors that help people deal with conflict, Schumann believes that apologies are the “superglue of life”—highly effective tools for repairing relationships, provided they are genuine. The power of apologies comes from the message we send that we care about the person we’ve hurt and that we want to do something to get the relationship back on track.

There is no magic formula of foolproof effectiveness for obtaining forgiveness from the offended party, given the number of factors involved in restoring a relationship (the context in which the mistake occurred, the state of the relationship before the incident, the severity of the conflict, etc.). According to Schumann, the most important thing for the offender to know is that the regret must be sincere, the words carefully chosen, and the attitude in line with the content of the apology. People need to hear that the offender regrets and takes responsibility for the conflict that has arisen. A simple “I shouldn’t have done that”, without remorse, often doesn’t bring about the hoped-for reconciliation.

In her studies, Schumann found that, 85-90% of the time, people who try to repair a relationship by apologising fail to empathise with the offended party and acknowledge the harm caused by their words or actions.

Along with empathy, authenticity, and the ability to take responsibility, a dose of vulnerability and humility are the ingredients of an effective apology, says psychotherapist Alison Roy, who specialises in working with children and young people. If the apology lacks these elements, the offended person will feel doubly wronged—because of the initial mistake, but also because the apology will be perceived as false and mechanical.

“That connection and bond you create with a good apology is an important first step to healing the relationship,” says psychologist David Helfand, who recommends that offenders do three things to remedy the situation: acknowledge their mistake and its impact, say how they could have done things differently, and explain what they think the outcome would have been if they had done things differently. By following these three steps and saying out loud what we should have done, we help our brains respond better in the future than if we remain fixated on the offending behaviour or try our best to defend ourselves, says Helfand.

Making amends for the harm done, when possible, increases the chances of reconciliation by giving our regret a tangible form. Also, one of the most important needs of the person who has been hurt is to be listened to, to make sure the offender understands where they went wrong and the damage that has been done.

Saying, “You really matter to me and I want to work out what has gone wrong, so I’m going to do nothing but listen to you for the next 15 minutes” is a great way to start a conversation that builds bridges between us, says Gabrielle Rifkind, a conflict resolution expert.

Apologising isn’t everything

The way we apologise to others can be not only ineffective but even harmful, says psychologist Andrea Bonior, who lists some mistakes we should steer clear of in order to avoid further hurting those we have wronged. First of all, we shouldn’t defend ourselves by justifying our behaviour (if we have to offer some explanations, we should reserve them for a separate discussion from the one in which we apologise). Another mistake is to promise things we cannot deliver, out of a desire to make peace as quickly as possible. This means that we will soon find ourselves in a new impasse, with even less credibility.

Apologies will also be ineffective if we wait for something in return. While we may hope that the person with whom we have come into conflict will also apologise, our apology should not depend on what we want to achieve, justified or not, now or in the future, Bonior points out.

To attach a “but” or an “if” to an apology is to nullify its effect.

After decades of research into forgiveness, psychologist Harriet Lerner has written a practical book on how to ask for forgiveness, highlighting the ways in which we unwittingly destroy our own apologies.

Attaching a “but” or an “if” to an apology means undoing its effect, Lerner writes. We often want to add context to the conflict or explain the reason for the (perceived) offending reaction or words, but the message we convey by using the conjunction “but” is that we were right to do so. All we get is a defensive reaction. Using the conjunction “if” is no better. An apology that includes an “if” (e.g., “I’m sorry if what I said offended you”) will sound insincere, says the psychologist, who recommends being wary of nuances that turn an ‘I’m sorry’ into ‘I’m actually not sorry at all.’[1]

Another way to destroy an apology is to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,”[2] because genuine apologies focus on our responsibility, not the other person’s reaction.

“A good apology is not about you,”[3] Lerner explains, pointing out that we miss the opportunity to sincerely express regret when we hijack the other person’s attention with the (probably real) pain the conflict has caused us. If we focus on our negative emotions instead of being receptive to the hurt person’s pain, we are already on the wrong track, warns the psychologist.

Finally, it’s wrong to pressure the other person into accepting our apology. Even if we want to overcome the discomfort of a conflict situation, apologies are meant to show that we regret hurting the other person and that the relationship is valuable to us, not to make us feel better. As much as we want reconciliation, the offended party may need time and space to go through the whole process (including the emotional one) that forgiveness involves.

And if our olive branch doesn’t seem to be well received (though not outright rejected either), before we lose hope, we should remember that “words are not the only way to say ‘I’m sorry.'”[4] Language matters, and a sincere apology can be healing. But when trust is undermined or words can no longer repair what has been damaged, there will always be a non-verbal way in which we can try to make amends for the past.

Carmen Lăiu is editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network

[1]“Harriet Lerner, ‘Why won’t you apologise?’, Gallery Books, 2017, p. 29.”
[2]“Ibid, p. 26.”
[3]“Ibid, p. 39.”
[4]“Ibid, p. 100.”

“Harriet Lerner, ‘Why won’t you apologise?’, Gallery Books, 2017, p. 29.”
“Ibid, p. 26.”
“Ibid, p. 39.”
“Ibid, p. 100.”