The Anatomy of a Bad Apology

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 4.29.26 PMLast week I told the story of Amos and Zoe, the office party debacle and their ensuing fight.

I ended up asking ~

  1. Who should apologize to whom?
  2. What for?
  3. Why?

and I offered 15 sample apologies they could have offered one another.

This week I promised to critique the apologies and offer my handy-dandy “Best Apology Guidelines” (maybe with a sexier title!). However, the critique is lengthy enough so we’ll tackle “The Anatomy of a Great Apology” next time.

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So, what did you make of Amos and Zoe’s predicaments?

  1. Who should apologize to whom?
  2. What for?
  3. Why?

A dear friend (and loyal reader of this blog who has an interest in child development and some experience in that field)  submitted his response and I love it – thank you Stuart!

Here is his take:

I can think of two ways to approach the question of apology. One is to examine the offense; the other is to examine the anatomy of an apology. I think the offense first.

Was there an offense? Zoe requested Amos presence at a function that was important to her and then treated him – well, in my view, treated him dismissively. Likely, Zoe didn’t view her behavior as being dismissive but made the assumption, based on her own assumption of autonomy, that going off and pursuing her own interests was simply no big deal.

Amos behaved badly in reaction to the treatment he experienced. Probably his (over)reaction was based not only on what actually happened but on his own insecurity and sense of unworthiness.

Stuart’s points already hint at the complexity involved in whether or not a particular person feels what they did was “offensive.” Maybe they feel their partner is overly sensitive, or maybe they each have different abilities when it comes to expressing their needs. Often whether or not one feels offended is situational and worth becoming curious about. A topic for next week.

However, in a long term relationship, erring on the side of silence or bumbling your apologies when you’ve blown it, creates a rift between two people. Every time one person does something their partner feels hurt by – and fails to apologize, understand and make amends for their part – it deepens this rift. Until no bridge can span it any more and you drift – like vast inaccessible continents – too far apart to ever reunite.

How odd then, that even though we know (or at least suspect) that learning how to say sorry is a key skill for happy long-term relationships, there is still such a rich variety of appalling apologies out there? I figure it’s time to hit the pause button and review why “I’m sorry but…” (and it’s companion appalling apologies) is dead at the get-go.

So here you go. If anyone uses one of these ghastly apologies on you, you can tell them precisely why their attempt won’t cut it. Then, direct them here. Or, both come back next week to find out what it takes to use a painful incident to grow personally and interpersonally. It’s true. Mistakes really are opportunities for deepening our connections.

[If you didn’t read last week’s blog, this article will make more sense if you do. You can access it here.]

  • Amos’s apology is in green.
  • Zoe’s in red.
  • My rationale for why this is NOT a sincere apology follows in blue.

Apology #1

  • OK, I know I blew my lid Saturday morning and I’m sorry but honestly Zoe you were horrible to me at the party.
  • OK, so I had a fun night, made a bad choice at the end and I’m sorry but honestly Amos, you were a grump at the party and way out of line on Saturday morning.

FAIL!

It violates the “Never use ‘but” in an apology” rule.

Never use “but” in an apology. Ever. Period. Inevitably what follows is criticism or an excuse.

Apology #2

  • I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I said on Saturday morning.
  • I’m sorry you felt hurt by what happened at the party.

FAIL!

This violates the “Keep the focus on what you did” rule.

You are only responsible for your thoughts and your actions. How the other person reacts to you is their business and certainly does not need you taking any ownership of. “I’m sorry you felt hurt” can be experienced as belittling – like maybe feeling hurt is for sissies. Instead, own what you did.

Apology #3

  • Listen, if that hurt you I didn’t mean it that way.
  • Listen, if that hurt you I didn’t mean it that way.

FAIL!

This violates the “Don’t be conditional” rule.

“If” is a bit like “but” – an instant FAIL! When you say “If that hurt” you are telling your partner their pain is fictional, hypothetical, not something you are convinced of. Or worse, maybe your partner is over-reacting since any “normal” person wouldn’t be expressing pain round about now. No “Ifs”!

Apology #4

  • OK OK I was a total sh*t! I’m so so sorry! I ought to have just kept my peace, not said a word, welcomed you home with open arms and not cared one iota that you’d slept in another man’s house – or was it bed – that night?
  • OK OK I was a total sh*t! I’m so so sorry! I ought to have just focused on you and made sure you had a wonderful evening. It was selfish of me to want to dance with my co-workers and to stay at a friend’s house so I didn’t disrupt your sleep before the game, as you asked, remember?

FAIL!

This violates the “Don’t go over the top” rule.

Going over the top becomes Vaudeville. Loses it’s sincerity. Not to mention the inevitable sarcasm that can slip in. Honest brevity trumps fake verbosity.

Apology #5

  • Zoe, I made a terrible mistake. Will you forgive me?
  • Amos, I made a terrible mistake. Will you forgive me?

FAIL!

This violates the “Forgiveness is a gift to be bestowed upon, not begged for” rule.

Asking to be forgiven puts all the focus on you. Long before your partner needs to forgive you, you need to understand exactly what happened, and your role in it and begin to wrap your head around how you won’t hurt them again. A premature demand of forgiveness is damaging in its own right.

Apology #6

  • I know you’re mad at me Zoe and I feel like a low life. It was horrible of me to get all caught up in being jealous of Jake when I know that’s in the past . And I think I’m hurting more than you are that I lost my cool and yelled at you. I’ve never wanted to be the sort of fellow who screams at his woman . . .I mean, who does that?
  • I know you’re mad at me Amos and I feel like a low life. It was horrible of me to get all caught up in work stories and not to dance with you. I think I’m hurting even more than you are that I stayed over at Jakes.

FAIL!

This violates the “Don’t drown the injured party in your own pain & sorrow” rule.

When you’ve done something your partner experiences as painful, the focus of your apology is their pain, not yours. Stay focused on seeking to understand and acknowledge their pain. Put on your grown-up pants and manage your own pain quietly, or later in a different conversation.

Apology #7

  • While I must apologize, you’ve gotta admit, you brought all this on when you friend-zoned me in the first few minutes at the party.
  • While I must apologize, you’ve gotta admit, you brought all this on when you behaved like a sullen kid at the party and then totally lost your cool on Saturday.

FAIL!

This violates the “Don’t play the blame game” rule.

A true low-bar excuse of an apology. Not only does it start out badly (saying “I must apologize” is not an apology) this heads farther south by laying blame and accusing your injured partner of deserving the treatment you delivered. Ouch!

Apology #8

  • You know what, here’s the deal. I spent one whole evening and most of the following morning in agony, seeing you schmoozing with all those hot shots and then waking up to find you not home even when I had to focus on the game and everything. Then, sure I have a tantrum so maybe I’m 15% of the problem but you’re packing 75% culpability I’d say!
  • You know what, here’s the deal. I spent one whole evening and most of the following morning   being stressed out by your judgmental attitude. You made no effort to relate to my friends and then blew up because I choose to be thoughtful. So maybe I’m 15% of the problem but you’re packing 75% culpability I’d say!

FAIL!

This violates the “It takes two” rule.

Sure, sometimes you’re provoked. Sometimes your partner’s actions were super hurtful to you. And, we are talking apologies here. In every episode of relationship bruising each partner has some small part to play. Dump the math. Own your part. Simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”

Apology #9

  • So yeah, I’m sorry and all that but heck, I’d probably do the same thing again if you treat me like that  Zoe! What man wouldn’t feel outrage when his girlfriend goes home with someone else after the office party?
  • So yeah, I’m sorry and all that but heck, I’d probably do the same thing again if we go to a party together and you’re no fun. I’ll take care of myself and try to have a good time. Who wouldn’t?

FAIL!

Two strikes here, right!

  • It violates the “Never use ‘but” in an apology rule, and
  • It violates the “Take corrective action” rule.

Here you’re saying that you’d do the same hurtful thing again. What sort of promise to behave differently is that? If you are genuinely sorry for something you’ve done, it’s important to start thinking about how to never do this thing again – not to threaten just the opposite!

Apology #10

  • Hang on! I’m not sure I even know why you’re so mad at me. What did I do? Expressed my  anger? Is that so bad? Go on, tell me, why are you so mad?
  • Hang on! I’m not sure I even know why you’re so mad at me. What did I do? Had some fun and stayed with a friend when it was so late. Is that so bad? Go on, tell me, why are you so mad?

FAIL!

It violates the “Ignorance is not an excuse” rule.

Sure, we’re not mind-readers and sometimes it’s true that you might be confused by an outburst of grief from your partner. However, you can’t possibly offer a sincere apology until you work hard to understand what you did that was hurtful or you’ll violate #9 above. If you don’t discover what you’ve done wrong, how can you promise never to do it again?

Apology #11

  • Zoe stop it! I said sorry a zillion times already. I won’t talk with you about this anymore.
  • Amos stop it! I said sorry a zillion times already. I won’t talk about this with you anymore.

FAIL!

It violates the “Do not attempt to silence your partner” rule.

If your partner is bringing up an event they clearly still feel some pain around, then your apology has not landed. It has not worked. You have not – effectively – apologized, no matter how often the “magic words” have left your mouth. This is especially poignant after an affair, when the wounds are so deep and the healing takes so long. You might just have to say “I’m so so sorry” a zillion and one times.

Apology #12

  • I hate it when you bring that fight up Zoe, it hurts. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, OK?
  • I hate it when you bring that fight up Amos, it hurts. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, OK?

FAIL!

It violates the “Don’t use ‘I’m sorry’ to dodge the deeper conversation” rule.

The work of repairing a breach in your relationship takes time and many forms. A glib “I’m sorry” is not a substitute for some tough explorations of the nature of one person’s experience or pain.

Apology #13

  • OK Zoe here’s the truth of it. I’m willing to say sorry, I’m willing to make amends and start over. I’m willing to accept you as you are and maybe you just are flirtatious and with a bit of a thoughtless streak. I can get over that.
  • OK Amos here’s the truth of it. I’m willing to say sorry, I’m willing to make amends and start over. I’m willing to accept you as you are and maybe you just are sensitive and a tad jealous. I can get over that.

FAIL!

It violates the “Do not use your apology to make your partner feel worse” rule.

This is as real bait and switch. You start off so well, the wound begins to heal over, then suddenly you lay the flesh open and expose the underbelly of your partner. Another ‘Ouch!”

Apology #14

  • I’ve said I’m sorry haven’t I? Isn’t sorry enough anymore?
  • I’ve said I’m sorry haven’t I? Isn’t sorry enough anymore?

FAIL!

It violates the “Sometimes ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough” rule.

Because sometimes it’s not. Be open to this feedback. If you really do not know how to make amends, come back next week. I’ll be talking a whole lot more about that.

Apology #15

  • Look, it really pisses me off when you bring up that event. Get over it already!
  • Look, it really pisses me off when you bring up that event. Get over it already

FAIL!

It violates the “No back-peddling” rule.

Any good you may have undertaken will be erased by this change of heart. If your partner is still bringing up your crimes and misdemeanors the better way forward is to talk with your partner about what it still hurting them. Like a piece of the splinter is still under the skin there – don’t get mad, get that splinter out.

Many thanks to J. E. Brown for some of these distinctions.

So OK, not these. But what?

Come back next week.

We’ll unpack what makes both a good apology and a great apology. There is a difference!

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FIRST TIME HERE?

This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.

OVERVIEW

SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING

SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

SKILLS FOR CONNECTING

SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality

SKILLS FOR RE-CONNECTING

SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

10 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Bad Apology

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