Imagine a buzzer going off in your head the moment you say, “I’m sorry, but….”
Beep, wrong answer!
That ‘but’ negates the apology. It shuts down foreseeable chances of reconciliation. It’s not an apology, then. It becomes a feeble excuse for an apology, as Kirin Hilliar, assistant professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, explains.
When someone feels hurt, betrayed and disappointed by your actions, telling them they’re wrong in feeling that way, making excuses, or believing that just a half-hearted sorry will cut it, drives a further wedge between people. The other person really needs to see that you’re remorseful about your actions or words, otherwise, the apology means nothing, says Hilliar.
“You’ve got to mean it,” says Aida Suhaimi, a clinical psychologist at Medcare Camali Centre Jumeirah. You need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and think, what if this happened to me? How would I feel? “Only then, can you understand the impact on the other person,” she says.
A weak, badly done apology can really leave a mark on a relationship. Aditi Sehgal, a Dubai-based expat recalls someone breaking her favourite coffee mug in office and then snapping at her, “I’m sorry that happened. But next time just a suggestion, don’t buy such cheap ceramics….” And then the person proceeded to explain where she could buy hardy mugs from. May Amelia, an Abu Dhabi-based British expat, was livid when her former partner spilt tea on her new white dress and then proceeded to lecture her on how light clothes get dirty easily.
So, how can you let the other person know that you are really sorry for what you did? The wellness experts have a few tips.
It’s never too late to say sorry: Think over it, first
Contrary to what One Republic and Justin Bieber say or rather sang, it’s never too late to say sorry.
You need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and think, what if this happened to me? How would I feel? Only then, can you understand the impact on the other person
Sometimes people rush to apologise to others, because they’re eager for a quick fix, explains Lauren Connor, a Canadian Abu Dhabi-based wellness expert and life coach. You want to mend the situation quickly, without fully grasping the seriousness of what you’ve done, she says. You apologise and feel considerably lighter, but the other person feels that you don’t even know what you’re apologising for. “Apologising quickly and hastily gives the impression that you’re just trying to ease your conscience, without truly understanding why the other person is triggered,” she says.
So, when you’re making your apology, body language is everything, says Hilliar.
“The tone of voice, the body posture, is important. They need to know that you actually feel sorry for hurting them,” she says. It shouldn't come across as forced. Don’t give them eyerolls, sigh or sound impatient, tap your foot, as if you’re just waiting to be done with the apology. It shouldn't look as if the apology is just for optics," she says. Focus on the person entirely. Let them know that they have your full attention. If you have to, sit them down and convey with your voice, that you are truly sorry for what happened, adds Connor.
The choice of words: Don’t be vague
Accept and acknowledge your offence, explains Hilliar. Take responsibility and ownership for what you did and hold yourself accountable. Don’t try to downplay the gravity by saying something like, “It’s only a small dinner I missed” or “It’s not such a big deal”.
Be specific when you apologise. Don’t be vague and say sorry 'I hurt your feelings'. Don't include the word 'but you...', because you are invalidating their feelings otherwise.
Be specific when you apologise, she says. “Don’t be vague and say sorry ‘if I hurt your feelings…’. Emphasise the offence, and apologise for that, specifically. Express real remorse at what you did," she says. For example: ‘I am sorry that I hurt you. It was wrong and it won’t happen again’. Otherwise, it comes across that you aren't taking full ownership of your offence and invalidating their feelings, explains Hilliar.
The fine line between explanations and excuses
The apology is not about you; so don’t make it about you.
“The tricky part about apologies is the explanation. You might think you have a good reason to do what you did, but it can come across as you being defensive. Then, the apology becomes about you, and not them,” explains Suhaimi. “You are just trying to make yourself better, otherwise. So start off with an ‘I’ statement and not a you statement. If you begin with a ‘you’ statement, like ‘you have taken this a little too seriously’, you automatically put the other person on the defensive,” she says.
For example, you forgot their birthday. Just say, “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday”. You might have several reasons that seem acceptable to you; you could have been overworked, stressed or unwell. So maybe you can say, “I am sorry that I forgot. I hurt you. I’ve been under a lot of pressure but that’s no excuse for forgetting,” explains Connor.
Without putting the onus on the other person, explain how did you make the mistake, says Connor. However, if you already know that it is turning out to be a weak excuse, just say, “I’m sorry, there’s no excuse,” says Suhaimi. That’s your best bet, sometimes. The moment you start trying to rationalise, defend yourself, you can just spiral down the rabbit-hole, she says.
Psychologists at the American Harvard Medical School break it down further, to explain ineffective wording and why it won’t work:
I apologise for whatever happened: The language is rather vague and neither are you specifying the offence.
Mistakes were made: The use of passive voice means that you aren’t taking responsibility
Okay, I apologise, I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you: Sounds reluctant; you’re putting the onus on the offended person, instead.
How can you fix this?
Then proceed to explain how you want to make amends, adds Hilliar. How can you fix the mess that you created? Ask them how you can make it up to them. It's a process of genuinely promising change, she says. Your behaviour needs to reflect that remorse and promise.
Make clear, sincere and concrete offers, says Suhaimi. Explain how you plan to improve yourself, or ask them. “Should I do xyz, will that help,” she says.
It’s not over, just because you’ve apologized
People tend to believe that just because they apologised, the other person should be charmed into instant forgiveness.
That’s another mistake, as Hilliar explains. Just because you apologised sincerely, the other person isn’t instantly obligated to return to normalcy with you. And neither, should you give that impression of pressurising someone to forgive you. People need the time and space to heal.
People tend to have the attitude, ‘Oh I apologised, why can’t they just let it go’. Forgiveness is tricky, but that decision is not for you to make,” she adds. In fact, behaving impatiently and being passive-aggressive will drive them further away from you. You might not want to keep asking how long they plan to be upset, but instead, you can check in. “I know this will take a long time to heal. Just let me know what I can do to make this right,” adds Hilliar. Express that you would like their forgiveness.
On the converse, Hilliar also explains how to forgive as well. No one’s asking you to go on a picnic with them, but neither should you be so consumed by your own rage and grudge. Forgiveness doesn't mean you have a relationship; you can forgive and still not trust them, she explains. “If the wound has run too deep and your relationship can’t be repaired, you can gradually forgive without inviting them back into your life. It’s a matter of cordiality and just keeping them at a distance,” says Connor.