The Art of Apologizing ~ in 5 Calming Breaths

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 2.35.49 PMWhen someone you love does something that hurts you, it’s quite common to find you are caught between two opposing desires:

  • Revenge – make ‘em pay for your hurt
  • Forgive – and forget as quickly as possible to remove the pain.



However, neither revenge nor forgiveness are the best idea on their own, since they can both block genuine reconciliation. This is the place where each of you gets to do some emotional homework .  Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 12.51.58 PM


If the hurt partner stays in revenge, it will eat away at their soul, heart and mind and destroy them from within like a worm in an apple.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 3.22.45 PM


If the hurt partner is too quick to jump to forgiveness, they run the risk of losing their voice, and becoming  dis-empowered, like it feels when someone offers you a limp-fish handshake.



This is where the Art of the Apology comes in.

A genuine, full heartfelt apology – coupled with the self-awareness this process fosters – can actually serve to bring two people closer.  While the person who has been accused of doing (or being) hurtful can do an awful lot of reparation using the Breaths I suggest below, if the two of you get fully engaged, you can use this episode to create a deep and genuine reconciliation.

I use the metaphor of the Breath (rather than the Step) for two reasons:

  1. When we are stressed it really helps to breathe: Keep breathing!
  2. There are in-breaths and out-breaths.  To stay alive, you need both.  This process works to bring two hurting people closer because it softens those edges between in and out, right and wrong, accused and accuser,  victim and culprit.

This is what makes apologizing an art form. With practice you can cultivate this ability to mastery. And as you do, you’ll be modeling the process for your partner and your children. And they, in turn, can model it for theirs. Lord knows, we need more reconciliation on the planet!

NOTE: Each of the Five Breaths has a role for both the Accuser and the Accused. Try on both roles from some past issue. Walk yourself through how the process might have gone had you tried it.  What do you notice?

Breath 1  ~  STORY

ACCUSER   Just let it out!  Tell your partner the story of why you are so upset  ~  Give as many details as you can to help the accused see things from your point of view.

“I’m never ever going to an office party with you again! You abandon me the moment we get there, you schmooze with everyone and don’t introduce me to half of them. And then, at dinner, you sit next to that new woman and spend the whole night in quiet conversation leaving me across from you between two crashing bores whom I didn’t even know!”

ACCUSED   Listen quietly to the accusation  ~  Face your accuser. Breathe deeply. Give this issue your full attention. Do not, under any circumstances, explain, justify, defend or deny. Zip it and listen. If your mind is busy doing anything other than listening, you’ll miss too much.

Breath 2  ~  FEELINGS

ACCUSED   Acknowledge the other person’s FEELINGS  ~  Put yourself in your accuser’s shoes and imagine how they felt, even if they have not expressed any feelings beyond anger. Until you have done this they have no interest in anything you have to say. Trust me! It will not help them one iota for you to tell them:

  • But I didn’t mean to . .
  • You have no idea the pressures I was under!
  • Hey, you could have  . . .
  • No, I did not do these things!
  • In fact, I did the opposite of this most of the time.

So, do not. Instead, try this ~

“Oh Fiona, you felt awful that night!  You felt abandoned by me when I did not introduce you to those folks we were talking to. And then at dinner, it sounds as though you felt jealous that I had someone to talk to – and it did not help that it was a woman – and you were stuck between two folks you did not enjoy.  And for sure you don’t want to get put in a situation like that again. Did I get this right, or am I missing some parts still?”

ACCUSER    Continue to clarify your  FEELINGS   ~  Did they express accurately how you were feeling? Do you need to have them understand any aspect of that painful event more fully?  Now is your chance to see if you feel genuinely and fully understood. It’s your job to help the accused understand you – there is only so much they can guess.

“Well, you’ve got most of it right. I did feel abandoned and jealous. I think what made it worse for me is that you know how vulnerable I feel amongst your super-smart financial market friends. Right in the midst of my six month parenting leave and all I can think to talk about is Sylvia sitting up and how cute she is. I ended up feeling boring, dumb and unattractive.”

ACCUSED   Repeat Breath 2  ~  Keep going around by inviting the accuser to say more about feelings while you continue to acknowledge what they are saying.

Again remind yourself – you are not pleading guilty. You are simply helping someone in pain name their symptoms.

Breath 3  ~  REPENTANCE 

ACCUSED   Say Sorry  ~  If you can hold-on to the idea that this person is simply telling you they are hurt; and if you can refrain from taking the focus back to you by explaining,  justifying, denying, or accusing*,  you may be able to offer a heartfelt. . .

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry you felt abandoned by me and jealous and boring and all those awful feelings you just shared with me.”

ACCUSER   Receive their sorrow  ~  Listen with your heart. If the accused has genuinely sought to understand how dreadful you felt, you can most likely be sure that they are genuinely sorry you felt that way.

Breath 4  ~  OWNERSHIP

ACCUSED   Accept responsibility for the parts you feel you can genuinely accept responsibility for. This empowers you to see how you could have done things differently  ~  Not everything is 100% within our control so the trick here is to take ownership of what is  Own up to the parts you can own up to.  You do not have to lie down and be a whipping boy. If there are things beyond your control, or actually more within your accuser’s control, don’t take those on.

“Fiona, I totally see how I blew it with the introductions. Truth was I blew it even more by not remember those guys names. I could have just spoken up and said ‘Hey – I’d like you to meet my wife” and hoped they’d have offered their names! And I did get way too interested in the things Betty had to say – that woman you spoke of. She’s from corporate so I was being a bit of a brown-nose I know. I can see how that must have looked to you.”

ACCUSER   Listen as your partner accepts responsibility  ~  You’ll know if this is genuine. You may find he or she is not taking responsibility for absolutely everything.  This is actually good. If you choose to notice what items were left on the table, you could – under calmer conditions – explore the extent to which you could have done something to help yourself under those circumstances. Own your own piece.

“Well thanks. I know I blame you for the two bores I sat between too – but I see I could have asked them about their kids and maybe sparked some sort of conversation I was interested in. Hey – I possibly could have asked to swap seats with someone after coffee too.”


ACCUSED   Seek forgiveness  ~  After you’ve heard the story and understood the feelings, after you’ve repented and taken ownership for what went down and how things could be different next time, you may want to ask for forgiveness.  I have noticed that when this process has moved successfully through these four stages, not everyone feels the need for this final step.  However, it can’t hurt!

“Fiona – I’m really glad we talked about this today. I want us to be close again. I’d love it if you could forgive me. Is there anything else  I need to do? Will you tell me?”

ACCUSER   Offer forgiveness when you are ready  ~  You may need some time;  you may not. Sometimes it helps to have a little ritual – like the confessional for Catholics when the priest dolls out “Five Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys”. 

“Yes. I’m glad I got this out. I felt so hurt I thought it was the beginning of the end for us. But I see things much more clearly now.  So – I’d say forgiveness will cost you dinner for two at that new wine-bar next week!”

That’s it. Give it a go. I’d love to know if you have anything to add.

*  So what to do with all your pent-up desire to explain, justify, deny or counter attack?  I’ve noticed one of two things might help.

  1. You may just be able to let them go. The whole point of all that was to try to make your accuser feel better and not think you were a jerk – right?  Well, now they feel better and probably feel great about you too. Can be best to just dump ’em.
  2. If you feel stuck, then one day – when the issue has cooled down a bit – you could bring these up more as a reporter of the event than protagonist.  “You know, I find I still hang on to wanting to let you know why I didn’t introduce you to those chaps at the office party. Funny really. I guess I wanted you to know I didn’t intend to hurt you. Can I tell you about things from my perspective, now that it’s all behind us?”



2 thoughts on “The Art of Apologizing ~ in 5 Calming Breaths

  1. Pingback: My Apology to You | Gemma Utting ~ Relationship Therapy

  2. Pingback: Five Conversations | Gemma Utting MA, CLC ~ A Skilled, Experienced Therapist & Coach

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