How to Give an Apology
Last year, there was a really great post going around by JoEllen at cuppacocoa.com about a better way to give apologies. Ostensibly, the post was about how parents or caregivers should ask children to apologize, but it soon became clear that the advice was applicable to anyone. JoEllen’s suggestion for how to phrase an apology takes the following form:
I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?
Each step is important and serves a different function. The first section (“I’m sorry for…”) shows that you understand what it was that you did.
Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.
Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend.
In the “I’m sorry for…” section, apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings is inappropriate, because it doesn’t show show that you understand the specific action you took that was wrong. This section requires that you be specific about your actions.
The second section (“This is wrong because…”) shows that you understand not just that your action was wrong, but the reasoning process behind why it was wrong. It shows that you have a good chance of effectively avoiding causing similar harm in the future, because you know how to recognize right from wrong and apply it to your actions. This is the section where it is appropriate to say “it was wrong because it hurt you.”
The third section (“In the future, I will…”) shows that you are taking the understanding you’ve shown in the first two section, and translating it into concrete action. The fourth section (“Will you forgive me?”) empowers the other person to decide if the apology is accepted. I also think it’s a good idea to add an extra section along the lines of “how can I make it up to you?” This shows your commitment to making things right, and empowers the other person to decide the best way to do that.
How to Ask For an Apology
Effectively asking for an apology is simply a mirror of the effective apology. If you feel wronged by someone, and you are interested in approaching the issue constructively, then it’s important that your request for an apology adequately empowers the other person to give an effective apology. It also sets the tone for the entire exchange, and shows that your goal is constructive dialogue, rather than vengeance or retribution.
An effective request for an apology would look like this:
Here is what you did…
This is wrong because…
Here is what you could have done instead…
I would like an apology [or another specific action]
Be Specific About the Actions That Were Wrong
The first section (“Here is what you did…”) is critically important because it informs the other person of what specific action you have a problem with. Similarly to the first section of an apology, it is inappropriate here to say “you were mean” or “you hurt me.”
Merely saying “you hurt me” doesn’t give the other person the information they need to effectively apologize. In order to be able to give an effective apology, the person needs to know which actions they took that you consider wrong. Be specific. The most effective way to adequately describe a person’s actions is to imagine that you’re telling a third party what happened, who knows nothing about the situation.
Bad: you made it so I couldn’t participate in the conversation.
Good: both times I tried to tell my story, you cut me off and talked over me.
Being specific when asking for an apology helps avoid confusing the issue. I know that I get offended when people lie to me, even inconsequential or “white” lies. However, people tend to lie to me when they are afraid that I will be angry if they tell me the truth. For instance, if a partner has a date with a new romantic interest, but says that they are going out with a different friend, I would be angry. But it’s important that I specifically state that I am angry about the dishonesty, not about my partner going on a date. Demanding an apology for having a date would be controlling and disempowering, and my partner might reasonably refuse to apologize. However, if I’m specific that it’s the dishonesty that upset me, we sidestep that trap. Merely saying “your actions hurt me” is insufficient to let my partner know that it was only the dishonesty that bothered me.
Being specific about the actions for which you want an apology also helps avoid a situation where one or both parties have bad facts. Sometimes, you can say “here is what you did…” and the other person will say “I didn’t do that.” Even if you don’t believe them, it refocuses the disagreement onto the disputed facts. Any constructive conflict resolution requires that the specific conflict be identified, and if it’s factual, that’s really important to know.
It is also important to clearly distinguish between things you’ve observed, things you’ve heard secondhand, and your interpretations of your observations. “You hit me” is a direct observation. “Terry and Jean said that you hit them” is a secondhand observation. “You like to hit people” is an interpretation. In particular, it’s often not helpful to present your interpretations as facts. Your interpretations are not facts, and all observations are open to interpretation. Leaving room for the fact that your interpretations are not certain, and remaining open to alternative explanations, is important in any constructive discussion.
Explain the Problem
The second section (“This is wrong because…”) serves as another way of narrowing the dispute. Often, two people can agree on what happened, but disagree over whether it was wrong.
Merely pointing out that you were hurt by the actions of someone else is insufficient to show that their actions were wrong. Healthy boundary-setting can hurt people. As Emma Fett has pointed out, “‘I was victimized by acts of control’ is not the same as ‘I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.'” As Franklin Veaux has noted:
people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!
Obviously, that is a situation where a party is feeling wronged, but has not actually been wronged. But the larger issue is that people are allowed to have different ethics and preferences in their relationships. Ethics are complicated, and reasonable minds can disagree about what is right or wrong in any given circumstance. While some things are not up for debate (e.g. violating clearly communicated physical boundaries is wrong), much of the ethics surrounding interpersonal relationships is highly debated and not at all obvious.
Much of the process of building a social circle involves finding people whose ethics and preferences align with each other. I like to be treated a certain way, so I look for people share my preferences on how people ought to treat each other and avoid people with conflicting preferences. I try to be as open as possible about my opinions and preferences regarding interpersonal relationships, in part because they’re not shared by everyone and I want everyone to know what they’re getting into. Being so open about my preferences tends to attract compatible people and repel incompatible people.
However, it’s not a perfect system, and no two people ever agree 100% on everything. So even among friends, it’s possible to have pretty substantial disagreements about ethics and preferences. When asking for an apology, it’s unreasonable to expect the other person to already know and agree why their actions were wrong unless it’s particularly obvious. Spelling out the reasons why you feel the other person’s actions were wrong makes sure the other person is aware of your ethics/preferences, and invites them to either agree or disagree. Even if the process leads to disagreement, disagreements about how people should behave can be very informative to future decisions regarding your boundaries with that person, and what kind of relationship you want to have.
Tell People How They Could Have Done Better
The third section (“Here is what you could have done instead…”) is important, in that it’s a way of showing that you respect the other person’s needs, and that you have considered the context. Just pointing out problems isn’t constructive unless you offer a potential solution. And if you offer a solution that satisfies the other person’s needs but also avoids the problematic behavior, then the other person knows that you are trying to be constructive, and that you consider their needs to be equally important to your own.
Bad: you shouldn’t have eaten the last piece of chicken.
Good: you could have asked if anyone else wanted the last piece, and you could have eaten the leftover pasta if you were still hungry.
When asking for an apology, it’s easy to give the impression that your perspective is the only one that matters. When you are in pain, it’s difficult to focus on anything but your pain. This section lets the other person know that their perspective still matters, that you have taken their needs into account, and that you have not committed the fundamental attribution error (where your own actions are seen as a reaction to the situation you’re in, but others’ actions are seen as indicative of their character).
By offering a reasonable solution, you are also communicating your own preferences. While the second section communicates your preferences in the abstract, this section translates them into actions. Often, a disagreement that appears large when it is discussed on the abstract level will turn out to be rather small when it comes to how it manifests as action. It is another way of focusing the disagreement and allowing people to either reach consensus or drill down to reach the heart of the disagreement.
Ask for What You Want
The final section (“I would like an apology [or another specific action]”) is important because it informs the other person how to make amends. If an apology is sufficient, it tends to be helpful for the other party to know that. If some other action is needed, it’s critically important that the other party is aware of what is needed. Asking for what you want is an important part of any interpersonal relationship, and it’s especially important when you feel wronged. If there is a path to healing, draw the other person a map. It’s not always reasonable to expect the other person to be able to find their way all on their own.
Plan for a Dialogue
If the steps above are followed, the other party will have a good idea of where you stand, and will have the information they need to understand your perspective. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will agree with your perspective uncritically. The above steps are meant as a starting point to a conversation. Done properly, they will demonstrate that you are approaching the disagreement from a constructive standpoint, and will provide necessary information. But even the most well-meaning and understanding people can have disagreements on facts, interpretations, ethics/preferences, and the reasonableness of the requested solution. In some situations, consensus will be easy. You will articulate your issues, the other person will see their error, and they will apologize. Other times, it will take some back-and-forth. The thing to remember is that a lot of the areas of disagreement are places that reasonable people can disagree.
Even when it comes to factual disputes, reasonable people can disagree. People’s memories are unreliable, and memories of traumatic events are especially unreliable, so any dispute that relies on human memories to determine what happened is dangerous. In such situations, it may be prudent to consider the other person’s fact pattern, and give the response you would give if it were true. Recognizing the unreliability of memory may mean that it’s never possible to conclusively say what happened, but that’s ok. You can still agree on what should have happened under the different factual circumstances presented, and agree that certain actions would be wrong. It can also be helpful, in those situation, if you are the accused party, to try to make amends regardless, in recognition that your memory is fallible and that the other person may be correct about what happened. At the same time, if you are the aggrieved party, it can be helpful to recognize that your own memory of the events may be flawed, and show understanding if a different person has a different recollection.
When To Ask For an Apology
Like giving an effective apology, an effective request for an apology take substantially more time and effort than the usual variety. When you’re in pain, you may not have that bandwidth, and that’s fine. If someone is hurting you wrongfully, you don’t owe it to them to communicate that fact in the most helpful way possible.
But at the same time, it’s difficult to be sure that the other person is definitely in the wrong until hearing their side of the story. If you can imagine a situation in which their actions may have been appropriate, it’s often best not to treat them as though their guilt is predetermined.
Generally, the quality of your request for an apology should be proportional to your desire to receive an apology and/or have a constructive dialogue. Usually, this will correspond to a desire to have a well-functioning relationship with a person. If your hope is to have a constructive discussion regarding the ways in which you were hurt, and come out the other side feeling positive about each other, it’s to your advantage to make your request as effective as possible. Likewise, if it is tremendously important to you that the other person understand what they did for some other reason, it’s probably best to follow the steps above. If it’s less important to you to get through to the person, it might not we worth the time and energy. It’s always a personal decision, and not every expression of pain needs to be as constructive as possible. However, if your goal is to improve a relationship, it may be worth the investment of time and energy to effectively ask for an apology.