But, says Hughes-Warrington, these apologies have often failed to role-model to the rest of us how we can best apologize in our own lives. Instead, they’ve Frequently demonstrated what happens – often to a catastrophic effect – when the necessary ingredients of a sincere apology are missing.
“They don’t hear care, and they don’t hear compassion,” she says, about various groups – like indigenous populations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand – who’ve received apologies or statements of “truth” about past abuse through numerous truth and reconciliation commissions, but which has not been acknowledged by their “lived experience”. (For instance: that because of generations of discrimination, they are unable to find Meaningful work, their life expectancy is 20 years below the rest of the population, or their children have died.)
“It [often has a feeling] of sounding [to victims] like a transactional avoidance of liability, or it’s just a ‘Brush my hands, done, moving on’ [feeling]. ” And for many groups, such experiences are at the heart of stalled reconciliations and ongoing fractured relationships with their fellow citizens.
It’s a mistake that many of us find all too easy to make in our personal lives, too, especially with those we’re closest to.
So what are some of the biggest mistakes that individuals often make when apologizing? And what exactly does a good Apology look like?
“I’m sorry but… ”Is one of the biggest no-nos, as is the phrase,“ I’m sorry you feel that way… ”says Hornsey.
“Because that’s not an apology,” he says, of the latter phrase. “That’s basically saying, ‘Look, I’m sorry that you feel upset,’ but you’re not saying you’re sorry for what you did. You think the other person is overreacting, and you use the language of ‘Sorry’ to express that. ”
“That’s basically saying, ‘Look, I’m sorry that you feel upset,’ but you’re not saying you’re sorry for what you did. You think the other person is overreacting, and you use the language of ‘Sorry’ to express that. ”
As for the dreaded “I’m sorry but… ”? It is a classic example of a phrase that someone uses when they’re trying to preserve their dignity, says Hornsey.
“There is, I think, a universal intrinsic need to try and maintain dignity and pride in certain situations,” he says, noting that he has felt this way himself. “I think what I’ve learned is to let go of that need for dignity because what the victim wants is their dignity restored. They don’t want to look after your dignity.
“When you’re qualifying it [your apology]”- with the“ but ”-“ you’re sort of asking people to look after your feelings. It’s almost like you’re asking people to think about you, and make allowances for you. And I think the Apology is not the time to do that. Apologies are better when they’re unqualified. ”
So how do we go about offering a sincere apology, when it can be so difficult to sacrifice some of our own dignity?
“What people are looking for is a sense that when you say‘ Sorry ’that you get it, and you mean it,” says Hornsey. “And by‘ getting it ’, it’s like, you know what you did wrong, and you know the consequences it had for the other person, and you actually understand Deeply what the situation was. So you communicate that understanding. Without that, it’s pointless because they’re [the person apologising is] not going to change. ”
It’s the changing that is crucial.
“They want a sign that you’ve changed,” he says, of the wronged party. “It’s like, [they think] ‘You’ve done this thing to me, broken my trust …. and could do that again, so you’re a risk to me. So I’m not going to get close to you. ‘ But what a [sincere] Apology says is, ‘My character has changed. I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person who did a bad thing. ‘ And so that signals that they’re no longer a Threat to you. If you can do an Apology well. ”
No one’s saying it will be easy. But the effect of nailing it might just be life-changing.
Enjoyed this piece? Read previous articles from our “How Do You Do It” series:
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.