Welcome to my blog. I’m a psychologist and the co-author (with Gary Chapman) of When Sorry Isn’t Enough. I share tips about What to Say When challenging conversations arise. I’ll check back in frequently to chime in on the conversation here.
In our book, When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Gary Chapman and I talk about five essential parts of an apology. Our apology survey showed that the evidence of sincerity in apologies differs from person to person. In this blog post, I’ll examine one of our languages of apology in detail.
Apology Language #1: Expressing Regret
The first language of apology is expressing regret. Most people say simply, “I’m sorry.”
Regret focuses on what you did or failed to do and how it affected the other person. The offended person is upset, and they want to know that you understand their pain or anger.
Basically, they want some evidence that you realize how deeply you have hurt them. For some people, this is the one thing they listen for in an apology. Without the expression of regret, they do not sense that the apology is adequate or sincere.
An apology has more impact when it’s specific. When we’re specific, we show the offended person that we truly understand how much we have hurt him or her. We place the focus on our action and how it affected the other person. And the more details we can give, the better.
Rodney, who has been married three years to his second wife, says, “I know that my wife means it when she says, ‘I’m sorry. I know that I hurt you by yelling at you.’ Then she does not go on to accuse me of causing her to get upset. My first wife always blamed me for everything.” Many people in our research made statements similar to this. “She apologizes, but then turns it around and blames her actions on something I did.”
Any time we shift the blame to the other person, we have moved from an apology to an attack. Attacks never lead to restored trust.
For some people, getting a sincere expression of regret is the strongest language of apology. It is what convinces them that the apology is sincere. Without it, they will hear your words but the words will appear empty.
My Real Life Frustration:
Last spring I was part of a group of women who received end-of-the-year prizes for each having led a small group. I had been told to make a selection from a consultant’s sales catalog (what a fun idea!) and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my thank-you gift. The summer came and went with no delivery of my product. I began to wonder, Where is my order? When the end of the year came with no package, I concluded that my order was not likely to come. I actually decided at that time that it was not worth pursuing the issue with anyone. I reasoned that I had enjoyed leading the group and put the item out of my mind with the refrain, “Easy come. Easy go.”
Imagine my surprise when I received a telephone message from the consultant the next spring. She said that she had been cleaning out boxes and found my order! She closed the phone message by saying simply that she wanted to arrange to get the item to me. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised to be in the position to receive that which I had let go.
However, something was still nagging at me. I replayed her message and confirmed my suspicion: She had failed to say, “I am sorry for my mistake,” or to express any sort of regret. I would have quickly embraced such an apology. As it was, I pondered the issue in my mind long enough to write it down and to wonder how often I might do the same thing. Do I correct problems, yet not assume responsibility or express regret? The magic words “I’m sorry” would have made a difference to me.
What to Say: Here are some phrases you may copy and paste to put meat on the bones of your apologies:
- • I know now that I hurt you very deeply. That causes me immense pain. I am truly sorry for what I did.
• I’m sorry that I caused you so much pain.
• At the time, obviously I was not thinking very well. I never intended to hurt you, but now I can see that my words were way out of line.
• I’m sorry that I was so insensitive.
• I am sorry that I violated your trust. I’ve created a roadblock in our relationship that I want to remove. I understand that even after I apologize, it may take a while for you to venture down the road of trust with me again.
• You were promised a service that we haven’t provided. I am sorry that our company clearly dropped the ball this time.
What Not to Say:
Sincere regret also needs to stand alone. It should not begin with the word “If…” and it will fall flat if it is followed with “But…”. Don’t go into explanations for your actions. The reason for your mistake is not the issue right now: the problem you caused is the only issue on the table right now. If you think an explanation might help the person to be less upset, wait at least 10 minutes after your apology. Then you can bring up any extenuating circumstances or explanation with less chance of sounding like you are letting yourself off the hook.
Share Your Thoughts Here:
What do you think? What words do you NOT like to hear in an apology?
How can you tell if people really understand the hurt they have caused you?