We all mess up at times with our spouses, kids, and others important to us. Misunderstandings and empathic failures cannot be avoided in close relationships, but aren’t necessarily detrimental. In fact, the ongoing climate of relationships is typically affected most by how rifts are handled — deepening bonds or fueling resentments.
Hurts that are ignored or ineffectively repaired can function like clogged arteries psychologically — producing cumulative blockages to connection. Often the instigating issue seems trivial on the surface, but even these obstructions often need clearing to restore the natural flow of relationships.
Though some people cannot say “I’m sorry” at all, a necessary ingredient of repairs, many people readily apologize but find it doesn’t get them very far — or even aggravates the problem. In such cases, the lack of success is typically attributed to the other person holding a grudge. But often the reason resentment lingers is because the apology didn’t hit the spot. In most relationships, everyday interpersonal infractions can be easily repaired if an effective approach is used. (More complex approaches are needed for betrayals of trust and deeper underlying issues.)
Why Some Apologies Don’t Work
Tori accused Jared of being condescending when he was helping her with a technical problem. He apologized, as he did previously in similar situations but, again, only made things worse. Examples of Jared’s apologies include:
“I’m sorry.” (Empty. These words can be used even if Jared isn’t paying attention.)
“I’m sorry you feel I was condescending.” (Disguised way of blaming Tori. Subtext: “You’re overly sensitive — you’re the one with the problem.”)
“I’m sorry I sounded condescending, but you weren’t getting it.” (Good beginning but the apology is sabotaged by a “but,” introducing Jared’s justification.)
“I’m sorry I was condescending, but you are always condescending to me.” (This apology is used as a tit for tat segue to bring up Jared’s gripes.)
The mindset behind successful apologies involves the attitude that regardless of how you were feeling, what the other person did, or what you intended, you wish you had handled the situation better. Apologies that work include staying focused on the topic of the other person’s experience, asking for clarification until you get it right, taking responsibility for what you did that was hurtful, and waiting until the other person feels understood before bringing up your own gripes or clarifications.
As Jared recognized the problems with his approach and learned new tools, he found that he had the power to settle Tori and resolve the tension between them:
“I know you’re upset, Tori. I want to try to make things better. Even if it’s obvious, if you explain what I did and how it made you feel, I’ll try to get it.”
After Tori explained, Jared considered these options:
“I’m sorry I used a tone that sounded condescending. I understand now that this made you feel like I wasn’t respecting your intelligence. I feel bad about that.”
“I’m sorry I came across as condescending. I wasn’t aware I was sounding that way. I understand that it made you feel like I wasn’t seeing you clearly and I feel bad about it — especially since I do respect your intelligence.”
Then, once Tori felt understood, Jared considered these clarifications: