How to Say Sorry (and Really Mean It)

How to say sorry is so fundamental to our relationships, that it ought to be taught at every level of education. Why do people find it so hard to say sorry? And what constitutes a great apology?

[Full Transcript Below]

Episode Transcript:

Kia: Is it ever really too late to say sorry? How do you say it in a way that shows you mean it, where you are also maybe learning something, and the relationship can grow?

Let’s learn the art of how to say sorry this morning with relationship coach Tara Whitewood from The Sugar Doctor. Good morning

Tara: Good morning Kia.

Kia: Are we naturally good at saying sorry?

Tara: Definitely not.

Kia: Okay great so it’s not just me.

Tara: See you next week. [both laugh]

Why Don't We Know How to Say Sorry?

Kia: Why?

Tara: Well I think that the fundamental reason that we are not good at saying sorry, is that people equate an apology to saying that they are wrong.

Kia: okay

Tara: So for many people there is big equals sign that apologising for something you’ve done, means that what you did was bad.

Kia: You’ve said that you’re to blame for whatever you are apologising for.

Tara: Exactly right. And I don’t think that that is the case. I think that we are complex human beings. Sometimes we do things that maybe we shouldn’t have done, and sometimes we do things that perhaps were done in all good faith, but the result is that we have upset or hurt someone else.

Kia: Well, see it’s often… two if not multiple parties, and just because we have done something, we can’t control how someone else takes that. And that’s where it can get into territory where an apology is needed.

Tara: Yeah, and so looking at that spectrum of wrong and right… you know, we’re not so black & white. There is a whole variety of ways that your actions can play out in the world, and to be able to take accountability for that, knowing how to say sorry without necessarily saying “and that means I am bad”...

Kia: that means I’ve done wrong

Tara: ...is a fundamental skill for building relationships.

How Do Develop a Perspective of Right vs Wrong?

Kia: How do we change that though? Because I feel like that is what’s taught to us from a very young age. It’s not even our parents fault, it’s just that that’s what society kind of thinks about when we have to say sorry.

Tara: Yeah, that’s right. And we have this really crazy idea that as humans, as adults, that we should be this, kind of, integrated and consistent person who is the same in every environment and never makes mistakes. And that we reach this moral high ground.

Kia:  Wouldn’t that be nice!

Tara: Right?! [laughs]

Kia: That sounds so simple

Tara: Instead of having these one-thousand personalities in the same skin that respond in different ways everywhere

Kia: Every second of every day

Tara: Right? We won’t go into too much detail, that’s my personal issues coming out.

The idea that we always do the right thing, and then when we don’t that we are wrong and bad, leads to that feeling of shame which is inherently never going to lead anywhere good.

When Do We Need to Learn How to Say Sorry?

Kia: Do we need to start from when we are taught to apologise? I often think it’s like; Tara, you have stolen Jimmy’s toy, give it back and say sorry! And you didn’t realise you were stealing it. In your mind you were sharing. Does that conversation need to change?

Tara: I think so, I think that from a really early age we need to reframe that so that we are more… Instead of being so adversarial where it is “you’re right and I am wrong” be more like, this is a problem that we are sharing, what are we going to do?

Have a conversation like “maybe we could play together” or take turns. Instead of having that really clear “no you did bad” and then that feeling of shame for a child.

Can We Get Better at Apologies?

Kia: Do we need to start from when we are taught to apologise? I often think it’s like; Tara, you have stolen Jimmy’s toy, give it back and say sorry! And you didn’t realise you were stealing it. In your mind you were sharing. Does that conversation need to change?

Tara: I think so, I think that from a really early age we need to reframe that so that we are more… Instead of being so adversarial where it is “you’re right and I am wrong” be more like, this is a problem that we are sharing, what are we going to do?

Have a conversation like “maybe we could play together” or take turns. Instead of having that really clear “no you did bad” and then that feeling of shame for a child.

Apologies Reflect Your Capacity for Feedback

Kia: Can we get better at it?

Tara: Definitely. And getting better at it, is actually a skill that will help you to succeed in every area of your life.

Fundamentally, apologies are a capacity to absorb and integrate feedback. [Read More: Feedback; The Art of Giving, Receiving, Implementing]

Being able to hear how someone else’s experience of what you have done has effected them, and to say” okay”. You know maybe you feel that initial glitch. You know, that emotional charge. But being able to say “okay, what’s the seed of truth in there?” What can I learn from that in order to do better? And from there, understand how to say sorry.

So in a business context particularly, I find feedback, or criticism as it is otherwise known, to be really valuable. Someone didn’t enjoy something, or someone found an experience wasn’t what they expected, for me it’s asking “okay, how could I have done that better?” Without making it about me.

Kia: But at the same time… it’s got to be delivered in a way. If I sat you down and said “that was all rubbish, you’re rubbish, it was awful, you’ll never be great, I hate everything you do.” That’s not going to be effective.

Tara: Absolutely. And for radio listeners – I’m nodding a lot, as Kia is speaking. So, you know, apologies are a team sport. And feedback is a team sport.

How Do You "Get" an Apology?

Tara: Feedback is a team sport, and the way that you go into sharing your experience of something that was negative is important.

If you want someone to apologise to you, the way that you go into that interaction is really going to lay the ground for whether or not you are likely to get an apology. If you go in all guns blazing, critical, shaming, you are maybe not going to get what you want.

Kia: See I’m interested if therein lies the issue as well. Going in expecting an apology. If you are going in to GET an apology, shouldn’t you be going in to get an outcome? That is not necessarily an apology, but is more a shared understanding, and a way to move forward?

Tara: Yes, I love that! And so, it is about being two individual adults, and you’re sharing your experience, “Hey Kia, when you said that thing yesterday”

Kia: When you told me I was rubbish on the radio

Tara: “When you told me I was rubbish on the radio, I felt really hurt. But could you maybe explain a little bit more about what specifically was rubbish, so that we can…”

Kia: Hang on, I just want to explain...

Tara: We’ll do that offline [both laugh]

Bring Curiosity to the Conversation

Tara: Okay, so to get really curious and to be open to the conversation. You know, what specifically was it that made you feel like that? And then how can we address that? Or when you are coming in and talking about something, making it a conversation…

Brené Brown says something that I think is really helpful. She says; You are ready to give feedback when you are ready to sit beside someone at the table and share the problem between you, instead of sitting across from them at the table and putting the problem in between you.

Edit: Here is the actual quote "You're ready to give feedback when you're ready to sit next to the person, not across from them. You're ready to put the problem, not between you, but in front of both of you. :

So it is really about, this is a shared issue that we have in our relationship, how are WE going to navigate it? Not YOU did this, and I need this from you.

Is How to Say Sorry Different in Business or Personal Life?

Kia: you mentioned business, is it different then with personal relationships?

Tara: I don’t think it really is. I mean, you know, in a personal relationship there is more skin in the game, and as a result there will be a lot more emotional charge. Quite likely. Depending, of course, how you are in business.

If you feel a lot of emotional charge there then maybe that is something also that you need to address. Because the capacity to manage those conflicts without being really charged, is crucial to a good outcome. If you go in and you are really emotional and you are really angry or you are really upset, then that is always going to escalate a conflict.

So taking some time out and thinking about it, is really important. But your question was, is it different from business to personal. In a business context we have an expectation of professionalism that doesn’t always play out, and the expectation is that we have those conversations in a different way. But I would like to take that professionalism into your personal relationships as well.

You know, blowing off steam is all well and good, and every now and then we all have a little tanty, me included. Then the capacity to come back later and consider how to say sorry, which I will often do, you know “hey, yesterday I was really unreasonable. And I’m sorry. The way that I responded to that was out of line, I was a bit out of sorts” so owning your behaviour.

What Makes a Good Apology?

Kia: Alright, it’s 14 minutes away from 10 o’clock. What makes up a good apology?

Tara: I think there are five parts to that. I think there is a pre-apology which isn’t one of the five parts and that is about listening. Just listening to someone telling you how they have experienced what you have done.

The apology has five parts so it starts with;

  1. Apology
  2. Accountability
  3. Actions
  4. Impact
  5. Enquiry

Apology

So the apology is “I’m sorry”. It’s those words. Please don’t try to soften it, or change it, or neutralise it. You need to say “I’m sorry”.

Kia: That’s simple.

Accountability

Tara: Yes! I’m sorry. And then the accountability part is “I’m sorry that I did this”.

Kia: So you’re naming what you did.

Actions

Tara: You’re naming specifically what it is. And the important reason is for doing that, is because if you haven’t understood why that person is upset… In a lot of relationships I see people say “I’m sorry”, just so that they don’t have to deal with the issue. Like, they just want to move on. “I’m sorry”.

Kia: Which my question always is “what are you sorry for?” You tell me what you are apologising for.

Tara: Which might be a bit aggressive [laughs] but… yes!

Kia: We’ll get into accepting apologies shortly!

Tara: But it is that! If you’re just saying sorry and you haven’t taken the time to listen and understand why, then it’s not really an apology. It’s just a dismissal. Like, can you just stop.

Kia: Just go away.

Tara: Yep. Go away. So the apology, the accountability, and the specific actions. So “I’m sorry that I was late home. I’m sorry that I didn’t call and I was late home”

Kia: And that you were worried.

Insight

Tara: Yes. “I’m sorry that I didn’t prepare on the show”. Whatever it is. I’m sorry that I said that thing. So the specific action. And then an insight into the impact on the other person.

So “I’m sorry that I was late home, and that it really threw out your evening or you were worried. Or that a phone call from me might have really made a difference. And I can see the impact that it has had on you and I am so sorry”. I hadn’t intended that.

Enquiry

And then a bit of an enquiry at the end. So the enquiry is the bridge from the apology, to restitution. So what is it right now that I could do for you, Kia, that would make you feel like we were resolving this, like we were moving forward. And you might say “ I appreciate the apology that’s all I need”.

Kia: I just need 20 minutes on my own.

Tara: I need some time out to process this. Or you might say “we need to have some more conversations about this, but this is a really great start, so thank you.”

Kia: Can we set up a plan so that if we’re late, we have these steps that we follow.

Tara: Exactly! So we’re talking about what are the things that we can do, that makes it feel like it isn’t going to become a pattern.

Kia: its not going to be an issue.

Tara: A cycle where you do the thing, then you say sorry,  and then I have to move on, and then you do the thing again, and it really doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

Which is where people get stuck in ruts. So those five parts are really crucial to a good apology.

How to Accept an Apology

Kia: alright, how about accepting an apology. Is there a right way to do that? I mean, you’ve already pointed out my flaws!

Tara: [laughs] we’ll talk about that later. I think, in accepting an apology, always start with “thank you”. Before you start dissecting where the apology fell down, you want to encourage someone to do it.

Kia: Because it’s tough.

Tara: It’s a hard thing to do! So “thank you. I really appreciate that”. I know maybe that wasn’t easy. I like to separate the apology and the conversation. So rather than needing to know all the things straight away and having a bigger conversation, say “thank you, I really appreciate that. Can we take a bit of time and then maybe on the weekend we can sit down and talk about some strategies so it doesn’t happen again”. So by then, you are coming into it in a different frame. Where you are coming into it as a team to resolve the problem, reather than maybe coming at it where there is a bit of emotional charge still sitting with the apology.

Always start with a thank you. But you do then get to decide whether you feel like the apology has hit the mark. If someone comes to you with a “sorry” [tone is very abrupt], the tone is off or it is just a rubbish apology “I’m sorry, but” or all those other things people do… You get to choose whether you take on that apology. But you may not need to articulate that to them. In a work context you may say “thank you for the apology, I really appreciate it. Maybe we can talk about it a bit more” and you keep your professional distance, but you don’t need to analyse all those reasons with them why that didn’t land.

And same with your partner, you don’t always need to go into all of the heavy detail. Because if an apology always becomes every time all this heavy, hard going, tough

Kia: and it goes on for days, weeks, it really has to be done, right? One of us has to draw a line.

Tara: Its exhausting if that happens, and then people are just not going to do it. It’s like “I’m not going to apologise because every time it becomes a week long drama

Kia: you just attack me

Tara: and its drama and its not fun… I’m just going to keep doing the thing.

Can We Practice How to Say Sorry?

Kia: How do we practice this? Because it’s hard, because the only way we really get good at it is doing it in the heat of the moment. So are there ways we can practice it in good times?

Tara: Yes, I’d practice doing it in that structure. I’d practice doing it for smaller things.

So when you… and perhaps retrospectively. So if you’ve had a little tanty, and you look back and thing “that wasn’t that great”. You can practice going back and saying “hey, on the weekend I said you were being rude, and now I realise that wasn’t very fair”. So you can practice with things that aren’t so charged.

It’s like building a muscle. You won’t go to the gym and suddenly start lift 400 pounds, you’re going to build up to it over time. So you find opportunities for the smaller apologies, to build that trust up, then when it gets to bigger issues you’re prepared.

Kia: You’re ready. And you can breathe and take that calm approach. Tara, always great to chat with you, thank you.

Tara: My pleasure

Kia: From The Sugar Doctor, Tara Whitewood, your regular relationship coach.

 

Doing Harm, Being Wrong, Privilege and Other Notes.

Edit June 2020: This particular episode was prepared by myself through the lens of making apologies within a healthy relationship. It’s difficult in a short radio show to cover all the potential applications of a topic… and I often listen back and notice things I would have liked to have highlighted. As I transcribed this today, the 16th June 20, I heard some glaring absences;

I want to clarify that there ARE occasions where people are wrong, and they did wrong, and they did harm. And accountability for that includes an apology where that is acknowledged, where remorse and understanding of the damage is expressed, and where this is followed with corrective action. In fact, corrective action is always important, and I missed that completely on this show.

I want to acknowledge specifically, that in the context of racism, white supremacy, and white fragility, it is crucial to unpack your privilege and understand why not only is an apology important, but that you must follow it with action. Just a note for those of you reading this transcript and thinking I might mean it’s okay to get it wrong, and pass on the work. Here are some beginner resources; So You Want to Talk About Race, Me and White Supremacy, How to Be an Antiracist.

I also want to mention that there are times when being calm, being nice, being patient are NOT required. When you are being bullied, or abused, or vilified, leaving the room or environment might be the safest and healthiest thing for you to do.

Please feel free to contact me at tara@thesugardoctor.com.au with any feedback (on this or any other article/ radio show) or questions that you have.

Additional Resources