The Art of the Apology

When I talk to men about their relationships, I find myself often describing how to give a good and genuine apology, and how to spot one when it happens. Today I want to talk about the Art of Apologizing.

As a preface, I will say that there are few skills more innately Masculine that offering a good apology, or receiving one. Owning your actions, both the good ones, and the mistakes keeps you honest: it forces you to improve yourself rather than hiding your flaws. It helps build self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses – so that you can play to the strengths and ask for help on your weak areas.  This will also help you develop a habit of Assertiveness.

There are a lot of men who have a hard time apologizing; they are afraid it will make them look soft and weak in the worst possible way. Understand that people find responsibility and accountability the most appealing traits in man. The only way you will ever look truly weak is when you make a terrible error, and then cause damage by trying to hide it and refusing to make it right.

The Anatomy of a Full Apology

0. Analyze Your Action: If someone is clearly hurt by your behaviour, and you didn’t expect them to be, consider how they may have read your actions. What seems to be taking initiative to you might have been seen as shutting another person out when they wanted to be consulted. What one person thinks of as a joke, another might see as an insult.

A good heuristic tool is to ask yourself, “What is the worst possible way someone could have taken that?”


1. Own Your Actions: The most important step is to own your actions Realize you made a mistake, caused an accident, or made a bad call. Accept that making it better, if that is possible, is your responsibility. If it isn’t something you can fix, then accept that you still have to hold yourself accountable to those who were affected by your error; to maintain your integrity you will have to find some means of making amends.

Remember that your job is not to excuse or justify your behaviour, in fact, doing so can make the apology seem hollow or inauthentic. Part of owning your behaviour is to let others draw their own conclusions. An apology without an excuse is often far more effective at shaping those conclusions anyway: it displays character.

This should be done out loud and anything you say about it should be made as an “I statement”. Here are some examples:

  • I realize I made a bad decision…”
  • I’m sorry, my behaviour was not appropriate, I make no excuses….”
  • I appear to have hurt you, that was not my intention, but I want to make it right…”
  • I take responsibility for this problem. I would like to apologize…”
  • This happened after I did [X], and so I would like to be the one to start fixing it.”


2. Express Remorse: Once you have owned the behaviour or the mistake, make sure people know that you regret it because it is not consistent with the person you want to be, and that you do not want to cause others pain. This is not a matter of trying to soothe others’ feelings, It is about making sure that they understand what feelings have motivated you. Some examples:

  • This is not the way I intended this to turn out, I hope you will be able to forgive me.”
  • I was being thoughtless, and I am appalled at my own bad graces. I want you to know I hold you in the highest esteem.”
  • I acted out of [anger / fear / frustration] and that is not the kind of person I want to be, and definitely not the person I want to be around you.”
  • My actions were disrespectful, and I should have known better. I need you to know that my behaviour just now does not reflect my genuine, respectful opinion of you.”
  • This was a careless mistake, and I regret it. I also regret the problems it may have caused for others.”

If you could see a way in which another person might have taken your actions when you were analyzing them, it can be helpful to use that knowledge in this step, for example:

  • I am worried that you may have seen my actions as an indicator that I [think X]. I only just realized how it might have looked that way. I hope you didn’t take it in that manner, but if you did, I want to be sure that you know it is not the case.”


3. Give Assurances: The person you are apologizing to needs to understand that this is not a part of your character or your regular behaviour pattern… if the problem is, you need to make assurances that you are doing your best to change. You need to tell those you are apologizing to that you are going to try to keep this from becoming a pattern – they need to be able to trust that you won’t continue to do this in the future. Examples:

  • This was a temporary setback for me, and doesn’t reflect my abilities.”
  • This was a lapse on my part. I will make an effort to bring greater discipline and awareness with me in the future.”
  • I am trying to improve, and clearly I have my work cut out for me. I am going to talk to someone about my behaviour lately.”
  • This is not the kind of behaviour I usually engage in. I would appreciate it if you considered it a momentary lapse.”
  • I will not make this kind of mistake again. I am going to use this moment to teach myself the value of diligence.”


4. Plan to Make it Right: The next step is to figure out what you can to to make the best of the situation. If there is a way to undo your actions, make a step by step plan before beginning your apology. If not, then if there is a customary way to handle these actions, like paying for property damage, then offer to do so right away.

Some problems cannot be undone so easily. In which case it is definitely time to use the knowledge that came from analyzing your actions. Look at what sort of person you might be seen as by others, and ask yourself what actions you can take to prove to them otherwise. Offer to do those.

For example, if you caused an argument at your host’s home during a party, offering to apologize to everyone who was involved individually, and then take them out for dinner to show that you are a person with social graces who respects everyone involved, and that you are making every effort to smooth over hurt feelings you may have created.

If during the last step you discovered that there is a pattern in your life that you will have to change, tell them how you will do that.

When you are at a loss for ways to make amends, sometimes the smartest thing to do is to ask:

  • I want to make amends to you, but I am unsure of how I can best do that. I am willing to do whatever you think is a reasonable way to undo the [problem / hurt] I have caused, and earn your trust.”


5. Act Immediately: Do not wait… whatever your plan of action is, take the first step immediately.


6. Verify or Accept the Consequences: Understand that however good your apology is, it is possible that you have permanently damaged your reputation or trust with some of the people involved. They are under no obligation to continue their relationship with you. If you are dismissed, dropped, broken up with, divorced, or fired, then that is the consequence of your error.

In the case of marriages, romantic relationships, and friendships, it may be necessary for you to advocate for yourself and fight to keep the relationship going. In most other cases, if someone takes immediate action to end a relationship, I recommend asking them: “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?” And if there isn’t, or their demands are unreasonable, parting with dignity, stoicism, and as much respect as you can muster is all that can be done.

If someone has accepted your apology, thank them for doing so. Then let it be for awhile, emotions can run high when one is making an apology. After a day or two passes, it might help you to make sure your relationship is on course. If you have taken actions, then be sure to let them know you have done so, if it was immediately visible to them, and if it was, ask them for feedback. Some examples might be:

  • I wanted to check in with you about [incident]. I’ve been working on things by [X, Y, Z] I want to make sure that we are on good terms again.”


Apologizing Twice

It is valuable to remember that you should never apologize to the same person for the same thing twice. Anyone who demands multiple apologies or continues to hold a grudge against you after accepting your apology is being passive-aggressive and trying to manipulate you. A simple “I have already apologized for that, and you accepted. I would like to take it off the table for future discussions.” should suffice.

When a person brings up the same incident or mistake over and over again whenever you have an unrelated or emotional argument… or refuses to forgive you for it while maintaining a relationship, it is called Gunnysacking. It is a dishonest and manipulative tactic, do not tolerate it.


Asking for an Apology Assertively

When someone behaves in a spectacularly bad manner, asking for a full apology, rather than accepting a simple “I’m sorry” is a valuable way to assert yourself and ensure the bad behaviour does not repeat. In this case, framing your request right can prevent a person form becoming defensive, and coach them in how to make a full apology.


1. Break the Pattern: The first thing to do is to end the current incident of the behaviour as it is happening. This is very simple, saying “Stop.” is often all that it takes. You will need to use a strong voice, and straight, strong posture. At most you may need to be a little more specific:

I need you to stop what you are doing and listen to me.”

If you can’t break the pattern now, you need to disengage and walk away from the incident entirely. The other person, if they are trying to rile you intentionally, or currently are behaving badly for intention will likely seek you out shortly after you leave.


2. Use an ‘I Statement’ to Explain How You are Offended: Essentially you need to open by saying that the current situation or behaviour is unacceptable, then characterize your reaction. This should be short and sweet. In order to keep it from being confrontational, be sure to keep to the facts only, and do not project any motives on the other person.

  • “This not acceptable and mature behaviour to me. When a person acts in this way, I feel disrespected.”
  • “This is an unacceptable situation. When these things happen it prevents me from working effectively.”
  • “I find this situation intolerable. I feel like I need to leave the room when it happens.”
  • “I will not be spoken to in this manner. If I am not treated with respect, then I would rather not speak with you at all.”

3. Request an Apology: This is fairly straightforward, you simply need to say “I feel I deserve an apology.” or “I need an apology before I can continue.” If the behaviour is extreme, you may wish to add in a possible consequence:


  • If this isn’t straightened out right now, I will not continue our relationship.”
  • If this behaviour doesn’t stop, and apology isn’t forthcoming, I will take this to the appropriate [authorities].”
  • I need to hear an apology from you in order to establish some trust.”


4. Describe What you Need to Know: The trick to getting more than a noncommittal “Sorry.” is to describe what you need to know, which is essentially a variation on the steps above. You need to know:

  • That the person didn’t intend to offend you.
  • That this will be an isolated incident, rather than a pattern.
  • What they intend to do to make the situation better or re-earn your trust.
  • When they will take action.

This can be phrased very simply:

  • I need to know that you didn’t mean to make me feel disrespected, and that you aren’t going to make this kind of behaviour a habit; I’ll also need to know how you are going to make sure you are going to continue to disrespect me in the future.”
  • I want to know that this is not intentional, that now that I have called your attention to it, you will respect my boundaries in the future. I also need you to take action to make sure this is taken care of now and in the future.”
  • I want you to acknowledge that this was not a good way of speaking to me, and I need you to write out a promise to me that it will not happen again.


5. Accept it if Given, or Follow Through: Once an apology has been made, let the matter drop, don’t speak of it further. Tell them you accept their apology, and then watch to see if they follow through on their actions.

If they do their best to make amends with you, then never speak of the problem again. There is nothing to be gained by bringing it out in the future. The person apologizing needs to be able to take you at your word. If they don’t follow through in a few days, then you need to call them on it:

  • When we last spoke about [incident] I was under the impression that you would [X], and I am not seeing any evidence of this. I am having trouble trusting you right now. Would you please take action right away?

If they refuse to follow through with their promises, or they refuse to apologize, then take action immediately. If you named consequences, then make them happen. If not, then register a complaint if appropriate (make sure you let the appropriate authority know that you tired to handle this problem between you politely, first). If you didn’t name consequences, then simply disengage with the person as much as possible. Do not speak to them unless necessary, if possible cut off all contact.

Apologies are powerful tools when done right: they can diffuse terrible situations and mend wounded relationships. They give you power over how people treat you, and allow you to build integrity and character. They can win you respect and influence where you might have lost faith in the past.

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