The Art of the Meaningful Apology


"Apologising with grace and class" is one of those Life 101 classes that would have been very useful in our younger years. We all do (or fail to do) things that warrant a meaningful apology at some point and, over time, how we go about our apologies can make or break our relationships.Being in a long-term relationship, I've had a lot of opportunities to practice apologising. I'm definitely not perfect at it (I have a strong competitive streak, which can slide into trying to prove that I am "the one who is obviously right,") but here are a few things I've learned so far about the art of the meaningful apology:

1. "I'm sorry if..." and "I'm sorry, but..." are not apologies

"I'm sorry if you felt annoyed by that" is not an apology. Neither is "I'm sorry I yelled at you, but you were being really annoying."We can't apologise for other people's feelings, we can only apologise for things we did that lacked empathy, integrity or understanding for the other person.

If you're not ready to apologise, then don't apologise. When I look back at times I've pulled out these apologies in the past, I’ve lacked generosity, which doesn't do much for resolving the discussion or mending anything that needs to be mended. An apology doesn't come with conditional clauses.

[Tweet " An apology doesn't come with conditional clauses."]

2. Own your behaviour

Everyone has stuff going on in their lives and everyone is busy, so let's assume we're on an even playing field. When we add excuses to the end of our apologies, it diminishes them, so let's just own up and be straight.I used to do this all the time with email. I intensely dislike email. I like it slightly more than I like talking on the phone, so I stick with it, but I've struggled with the discipline to respond to emails in a timely manner. I used to say to people "Sorry for my slow reply, I've been busy," which was bullshihtzu. Everyone is busy.Now, I don't give myself permission to make excuses. If I'm slow responding, I just say "I'm sorry." If there's a valid reason I'm slow (e.g. I've been ill), I explain why I've been away. Even better, I stick an autoresponder on so people know why I'm not responding. And guess what? Without excuses to fall back on, I'm generally a lot better at responding in a timely fashion.

3. Sort out your feelings in your own time

Some people approach apologies by launching into self-blame and recrimination, explaining that they are really, truly sorry, they've thought about their behaviour, and they think it all stems from that incident when they were five when...An apology's focus is on the other person, not on you. When we turn apologies into our own personal counselling session, all we're communicating to the other person is "I'm too absorbed in my own stuff to truly empathise with you, and not only have I wronged you but I now expect you to sit here and listen to my life story."[Tweet "An apology's focus is on the other person, not on you."]Nine times out of ten, people who do this are truly sorry. They think that, if they share their internal self-blame, it will show just how sorry they are. But all it does is turn the focus back onto them, rather than the person they're apologising to.

Thinking about why we did or said the things we're apologising for is important. But it's something we process in our own time so we can show up and apologise with an open and generous presence. 

4. A meaningful apology includes making amends

This is the most important thing, and the thing we most often overlook: a genuine apology is a sincere effort to make amends.Making amends is about taking action to repair the damage you have done. If you borrowed someone’s jacket and end up staining it, get it professionally cleaned or even get them a new stain-free one. If you forgot someone's birthday, surprise them with a small gift a few weeks later.Yes, making amends might cost you—both in terms of your bank balance and your ego—but the practical cost is more than worth when it comes to your integrity.What tips do you have for crafting a meaningful apology? Leave a comment and share your thoughts. Further reading: Getting real in relationships (an interview with Dr Susan Campbell) & 7 must-read books that will help you better your relationships