The Complexity of Apologies

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

“I said I’m sorry! What else could you possibly want?”

Well. Let me tell you… kinda a lot.

In my work as a coach, organizational consultant and trainer it hasn’t taken long to see repeat patterns in human relationships. It doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic partnership, family relationship, an executive relating to staff, or a person living incarcerated relating with their cellmate. The patterns come up in sessions or trainings with people who share some of the most challenging and vulnerable moments of their lives with me. They also come up while I facilitate work-related meetings for board members and committees. The core pattern is that we all struggle to apologize in a way that is clear, repairs disconnection, and moves relationships forward compassionately and effectively for everyone involved.

Personally, I have a long history of not often being able to take apologies seriously when they come in the form of “I’m sorry”, full stop. I have left people feeling exacerbated not knowing what else they could do to reconnect with me. For a long time I did not have the words or understanding to share what else I needed beyond “I’m sorry”. Part of that is my own history struggling to trust apologies in relationships where I hoped and believed that someone would change or treat me differently after saying “I’m sorry”, then witnessed them not being able to do so. I used to take that to mean that they didn’t care. Yet, the unchanged behavior was not for a lack of love of me or positive intentions, but for a lack of information, capacity, and skill to change. Until recently I considered my struggle to take “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” seriously a private and personal flaw, thinking “Is there something wrong with me?” Because even when the “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” came to me with sincerity, I still couldn’t quite settle in my body after receiving it. Something felt incomplete and I remained subtly resigned and disconnected.

So, what else could any of us possibly do or want beyond “I’m sorry”?

Keep reading to explore some possibilities of how to do something beyond saying “I’m sorry”, whether you are in the position of regretting something you did or said, were told by someone that something you did landed as harm, or are the person who experienced harm… 

We want to know that our experience matters to the person who has done something that we felt pain around. We want to know that they know specifically what they are apologizing for. We want what we went through to be seen and heard more fully. I was recently on a zoom call where the instructor’s child interrupted our training to hold up their broken toy to the group of 100 on the zoom call. He just wanted people to share in his hurt. We want to be known for our pain because we want the highest possibility that the disconnecting experience won’t happen again. Being witnessed is a critical part of that. Humans fundamentally do not want one another to experience pain, we are empathic beings. We want to know that we matter, and that it matters to another person that we had a painful experience off of something they did or said, that it’s significant enough to them, that we are significant enough to them to motivate efforts to change the behavior. We all also want shared understanding; we want to know if we misinterpreted something, missed something, and we want the possibility of clearing up misunderstandings.

We want to be able to reconnect with one another when things go sideways so we can participate in rich, fulfilling and connected relationships with our larger community, our colleagues, and in intimate relationships with people we care about deeply. As the holidays come along, and emotions are likely to run hot as we gather or mourn who we are not gathering with, this is a particularly critical time to learn some new skills around apologizing.

Saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” can be an important and helpful beginning to reconnection after someone experienced hurt during an interaction. It serves to acknowledge an ouch – that something happened and that impact may have been experienced. It can acknowledge regret around any pain or hurt stimulated. However, only saying “I’m sorry” can leave too much room for a repeat occurrence of the ouch. Leaving it at “I’m sorry” can cut off the opportunity for the person harmed to share more about the impact, to be seen and heard for that, or for the person who did something that had an impact to gain information and understanding about what exactly did not go as planned so they can choose do do something differently next time if that makes sense. When the conversation ends at “I’m sorry” there is a missed opportunity to gain new information about one another and shift something in the relational dynamic or interactions toward better attunement to everyone’s needs.

When we did something that someone experienced as hurtful: Sometimes we know right after we say something it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to, or after it hits the air, we hear it and see that our words were kinda mean or judgmental. We can feel embarrassed yet often don’t know what to do. The quickest thing is to simply say “I’m sorry”, and sometimes this is enough of a small repair to keep it moving with the relationship intact. However, it’s not always easy to catch something in the moment and as time passes; if someone felt hurt by something we said or did, we may notice a distance grow in the relationship. If over time the other person keeps bringing the interaction up, or you do not feel resolved within yourself, it might be time to address your gut feeling and inquire if the other person is willing to have a conversation so you have the opportunity to mend the relationship if needed.

This conversation can start by saying something like, “Hi, I said this thing the other week and I feel sad about what I said and I’m thinking you may have been hurt by my words. Are you willing to have a conversation about that?”

Also consider:

  1. Does this person want to talk about it or do they just want to give you feedback and be known for their pain?
  2. Do you want to address what happened, are you willing to apologize and make amends?

If the other person is willing to have that conversation, it may be tempting for you to want to explain why you said what you said… to want to be heard and seen first. Most of us are coming from a place of wanting to be seen and heard for our experiences and also wanting to be in connection with others, so that would make sense as a habit. However, if we start there, we are prioritizing our feelings over the person who may have experienced hurt. Coming at it this way may inspire a loss of trust in the other person that you sincerely want to understand their experience and hear what happened for them. If we wait a beat, and give the other person some space to share about their experience, we will lean in closer to possible relational repair. When people experience a sincere desire to know and understand coming from another human being, they want to share how the situation was for them – to be known.

In that conversation we can orient ourselves toward curiosity with phrases and questions like:

  • I’m curious, how was that when I said [or did] that?
  • Is there more you’d like me to know?
  • If it could have happened differently, what may have worked better for you?

When someone expresses that they felt hurt after an interaction with you and they want to share the impact with you: Sometimes we go about our business after an interaction and haven’t any idea that someone experienced something we said or did as hurtful. So, when someone shares that they feel hurt after an interaction, we may be surprised. However, it is possible to have an effective and compassionate conversation and tend to the person who experienced hurt and also repair the relationship when we:

  • Empathize, and are emotionally regulated enough to be available to hear what the other person experienced.
  • Remember that empathy doesn’t equate to agreement. What we intend to say may not be experienced as we intended. Yet staying with the person who is expressing how they experienced our words and trying to understand how that was for them, doesn’t mean that we agree with their perceptions or interpretations of our words or actions.
  • Take the person seriously, without dismissing their experience. Dismissing someone’s experience sounds like taking the focus off of the other person’s feelings and putting it onto your own, arguing with the other person’s experience or perspective, or trying to explain why you did what you did before the other person is ready to hear it and while they are trying to share their experience. Taking someone seriously, can look like reflecting what you hear, asking questions to make sure you understand like “Is what you mean this ____?” or “Let me make sure I understand what happened for you, is it that ____?”
  • When you notice the person shifts, possibly experiencing being seen and heard, ask if they might like to hear how what they shared lands with you. If they say, yes, this isn’t a time to explain why you did what you did or what you were trying to say or do. We often miss this critical step: It’s a time to communicate something that lets the other person know that their experience matters to you. Something more like, “Wow, now that I understand more clearly how what I said or did landed for you, I feel sad and want you to know your experience matters to me. Is there anything more you want me to know?”
  • If you get through that piece of the conversation, the next place to go is to ask if they’d like to know what was going on for you at the time. They may need more time to process and sit with being heard. However, If they say yes, this is where you can share what you had intended by your words or actions even if your intention did not match the outcome or what the other person experienced.
  • If they aren’t interested in hearing you, you can ask if they’d be open to hearing your experience another time.
  • Lastly, if they are still willing, ask them if they know of a way that you both can do it differently next time so that impact or hurt is mitigated. Acknowledge human fallibility and make some agreements as to how to handle the situation next time if it happens again. For example, “Next time will you let me know as soon as you are able to if you felt hurt?” Or, “Next time, do you agree to have a conversation again?”

So much of the trauma we have endured in our lives happened in relationships, so discovering ways to heal through communication in relationships can be significant. One way of healing can be to move past “I’m sorry” and into skilled conversations beyond mere apologies with the communication tools and mindsets listed above.

When we experience pain or hurt in an interaction and don’t have the opportunity for someone to really get what happened to us or how we experienced something, we can find ourselves resentful, bottling up feelings that can come out later at people and in situations completely disconnected from the initial experience of hurt. When we stop dialogue at “I’m sorry” we increase the likelihood of resentment and disconnection, and prevent the possibility of the intimacy and attunement that lay the groundwork for rich human connections.

Rather than full-stop apologies of “I’m sorry”, apology conversations and processes are communication tools that support one aspect of how to create our connections and tend to our interconnection in a tangible, sustainable way. Apology conversations weave a strong web to fall on when things otherwise get challenging as we relate to one another in the ever-unfolding drama of being human.

Sheila Menezes is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, Facilitator, Mediator and certified EQ-i 2.0 / EQ 360 Practitioner. She offers her expertise to help build cultures of empathy by training people in compassionate leadership, emotional intelligence and effective communication oriented toward connection, clarity, and collaboration. She is certified through the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) and a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC. She has brought Nonviolent Communication (NVC) into San Quentin State Prison with the Safer Communities Project since 2015, and facilitated classes for VOEG (Victim-Offender Education Group) with the Insight Prison Project since 2016. Her approach fosters hopefulness grounded in a vision of holistic wellbeing, equity, transformative justice, and antiracism.