How to apologize

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Apologizing isn’t so much an art as a sport. When approached as a skill to build, governed by a few simple rules, the apology almost always achieves its goal -- despite any fumbles during delivery. When it’s over, everyone wins.Degree of difficulty: Medium to hard, depending on aversion to eye contact.

  • Forget dodgeball; apologizing is a contact sport

“Eye to eye, face to face, that’s the one way it works,” said Maribeth Kuzmeski, author of “The Engaging Child” (Red Zone Publishing) and “The Connectors” (Wiley), both relationship skills books. “My son, when he was younger … (would) write a note of apology. We would say, ‘We’re so happy you took the time to write us this note. We’d really like you to talk to us about it.’”

Now, her kids and their peers apologize by text message. “That seems to be accepted. Apologies are situational sometimes. But, as a parent, if my daughter apologized by text message to me, I would say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Teenager to teenager may be one way, but teen to adult or adult to adult, if you really mean it, you go face to face and suck it up.”

  • Find a segue

Rolling into the apology is often the toughest part, especially if the tone up to now has been light. Kuzmeski suggests a transitional, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something.” That signals the subject matter is important.

Next you might say, “I know you were unhappy with something that I did, and I’d like to talk to you about that.”

  • Include the ‘I,’ as in ‘I’m sorry,’ not just ‘Sorry’

The latter is the equivalent of “Love ya!” versus “I love you.” It’s often employed by kids who feel justified in what they did. “We need to teach, if something they’ve done has upset the other person, and they don’t want the person upset, then they say an authentic apology,” Kuzmeski said. “Hopefully we can get to the point where they’re sorry for what (the misunderstanding) has done, if not sorry for what they’ve done.”

  • Don’t qualify it

Banish the “if” and “but,” as in, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings but your outfit reminded me of dad’s Naugahyde recliner.” Those qualifiers/justifiers will dig a deeper hole. If you can’t apologize without them, don’t apologize.

“We have to apologize in a believable way and not have any other messages intertwined in there,” Kuzmeski said.

If you’re unclear of your offense, however, it’s OK to say, “I see I hurt your feelings. I don’t completely understand. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?” If there was a misunderstanding or oversensitivity in your view, mend the fence with, “I didn’t know it would make you feel the way it did or I never would have said it. That wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry.”

  • Don’t expect instant absolution

“You want the other person to tell you it’s OK. And they may not do that,” she said. Perhaps your apology lacked conviction; you may wish to reiterate how sorry you are and add, if it’s a personal relationship (not business), “Will you please forgive me?” If the person replies, “Stop apologizing -- it’s over already!” do stop. The person may just need time.

The apology under duress: Kuzmeski condones requiring a child to apologize, a la, “If you want to do whatever the next thing is that you want to do, you have to apologize to your sister.”

“If you wait till they really feel sorry, you might be waiting 10 years,” she said. “What’s more important is to get them to know that apologizing is the right thing to do. It’s social intelligence type of teaching.”