The important, yet often missing steps to an apology ...

Apologies are a necessary part of maintaining healthy relationships. When one person hurts another (or they both hurt each other,) apologies are like stitches closing the open wound and allowing faster healing and less scarring. So it is important that we all know how to do it effectively and from a place of strong self-esteem and compassion.

What is an apology? Typically we think of it as an expression of regret for hurting another. However, we tend to speak apologies in a way that expresses regret or wrongness for our action! “I shouldn't have done that.” or “I'm sorry for what I said.”

But a healthy apology may not even need an admission of wrongness. A healthy apology is about taking full responsibility for our behavior (whether we think of it an wrong or not) AND expressing regret for hurting the other person. The best apologies also include an expression of compassion for the other person's feelings and some assurance that we will take action to correct our hurtful behavior in the future.

I like to teach clients, couples, and polycules the 5-step apology:

  1. Admit to what you did. - This is simply pointing out the facts and taking responsibility for your behavior. IF your behavior was “wrong,” be secure enough in yourself to say so. Examples: “I went out Saturday night and didn't call you.” or “I went out Saturday night and didn't call you when I said I would. And, that was wrong.”

  2. Identify how it made the other person feel. - If you are sure you know how it made the other person feel, just speak it. If you are not sure, you can either ask, or you can take a guess and then ask if you got it right. “I can imagine that if I were you, I might feel hurt by that. Is that right? Is that how you felt?” Be open to hearing corrections or additional details such as, “No, not really. I felt angry. I felt dismissed.”

  3. Here's the most important step... Apologize for how your actions made the other person feel and express that their feelings matter to you! If appropriate, ALSO apologize for your behavior. For example, “I'm sorry I interrupted you and I am very sorry that me interrupting you made you feel dismissed and unimportant. Your feelings matter a lot to me and I actually do value what you have to say, even though my behavior at the time didn't show that. It was wrong of me to interrupt you” Or, “I went out on Saturday night and didn't call you. I am very sorry that my actions caused you to feel dismissed and angry. I care very much for your feelings and would not want you to feel this way.” Either way, take responsibility for your behavior. Don't offer excuses or justifications. Chances are, you already spoke those in the discussion that happened before you decided to apologize.

  4. This is the step people almost never do, and yet it is vitally important to rebuilding safety and trust … explain what you will do to ensure you don't hurt the person in the same way in the future. For example, “I'm going to work really hard to not interrupt you in the future and I would like you to please point it out to me if I do. That will help me to break this habit.”

  5. The final step is to ask for forgiveness and/or ask for the opportunity to repair the rift in the relationship. “Can you forgive me?” or “Can you give me another chance?”

Note: I do not remember where I first learned of the 5 step apology. It might be from Non-Violent Communication, but I was not able to find a reference when I searched on the internet. If anyone does find a reference to this, please share it with me so I can give credit.