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Apologies: How to Make Them Work

By Barbara Greenleaf September 22, 2020 Lifestyle

During the current pandemic, I find it relaxing to watch Army Wives before I go to bed, and I’ve noticed that, in every episode someone says, “I’m sorry.”

This TV show being a soap opera (albeit a high-class one), the apology is always accepted graciously, often with the recipient taking some of the blame or saying, “No need to apologize; you didn’t do anything wrong.” Oh, if only differences were solved so readily in real life!

As I learned while writing Parents of Adult Children: You Are Not Alone, when things go sour between the generations, mothers and fathers may not even realize what, if anything, they did wrong.

They truly don’t know how they could have so offended their daughter or daughter-in-law that she won’t even talk to them anymore. What they do know is that they want to get the unpleasantness behind them and restore harmony to the family as quickly as possible. The question is, how to do it?

The experts say the key to reconciliation is apologizing, but only if it’s done the right way and in the spirit of forgiveness. Here’s what they recommend:

Be Sincere

You have to express genuine regret and be remorseful that you caused the other person to be unhappy. Only genuine emotion will restore your relationship, they say. The pros point out that true sincerity is a proven way to resolve disputes and dissipate negative emotions quickly and effectively.

Be Prompt

If a specific incident triggered the acrimony, try to set things right as quickly as possible. Too little, too late may doom your efforts from the start. The experts say that giving an apology as early as possible leads to less conflict later on and increases satisfaction on both sides of a dispute.

Let the Other Person Know That He or She Is Being Heard

Mediators say that often disputants care more about airing their grievances than winning. That’s why in your apology it’s a good idea to show that you take the other person’s issues seriously, even if privately you think they’re without merit.

Keep It Specific

If an apology is totally generic, chances are it won’t be effective. Allude to the points of contention between the two of you and offer to do your part in setting them right. Also, be concrete about the corrective actions you plan to take.

Focus on the Harm You Might Have Caused

Minimize the context, motivation, or justification for your actions while keeping the spotlight squarely on the act itself. “I’m sorry I said that; it was insensitive of me” is called for. “I’m sorry you were offended by…” is not. In fact, the latter example is a non-apology.

According to Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts: “You should own your behavior and apologize for it, period.” She warns against sounding defensive or overemphasizing your own pain or remorse, which minimizes the other person’s hurt.

Don’t Use the Word “But”

According to Dr. Lerner, “‘But’ automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.” This isn’t the time to pass judgment but to acknowledge how your actions might have offended the other person and that you’re sorry for them.

See Things from the Other Person’s Perspective

You may feel that you’re being accused of crimes you never committed or that your offspring and his/her spouse are blowing little annoyances into major offenses. This is maddening, but if you want to unfreeze the situation, the experts urge you to step into the other person’s shoes. Trying to understand where he/she is coming from will help you move the ball forward in a way nothing else could.

Never Mind Who Started It

To make your apology effective, you should refrain from assigning blame.

Even if you’re only slightly or not at all to blame and/or were justifiably provoked, you can still say simply, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”

Too often each side wants to convince the other of his/her righteous position, which is a losing proposition. Of course, serious hurt requires time and work to overcome, but a sincere “I’m sorry” is an excellent place to begin.

What recent situation with your adult children (or even friends) caused someone to feel offended? How did you resolve it? What did the apologies sound like? Was there sincerity that was clearly accounted for and felt by all involved parties? Please share your experiences with the community!

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The Author

Barbara Greenleaf is the author of the new self-help book, Parents of Adult Children: You Are Not Alone, based on her long-running blog. She has also written a history of childhood and a self-help for working mothers. Barbara was on the staff of The New York Times.

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