How To Say “I’m Sorry”

I’ve been thinking about the words “I’m sorry” lately.


I come from a family where “I’m sorry” wasn’t heard very often. We tend to be the type who have an attitude of “put your big-girl panties on and get over it.”


This attitude is a problem when you’re married to someone you want to get along with and are confronted with the knowledge you are not, in fact, perfect.


That’s a realization I’m still trying to get over.


I’ve taught the girls the mechanics of giving an apology. At their young ages they aren’t really sincere about the emotion but at least they know to look the person they’re talking to in the eye, say, “I’m sorry,” respond with an “I forgive you,” and give a hug to make up.


It gets a little more complicated as an adult. Mostly because our mouths can say we’re sorry while our hearts are still belligerent and insincere!


I have the book 5 Languages of Apology and I think I’m going to pull it out and read it… but until then, here’s what my armchair psychology has figured out so far about offering an apology:


1. Avoid phrases such as “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That’s an insincere apology! It puts the burden of responsibility back on the person who is hurt… after all, if they weren’t so sensitive they wouldn’t be bothered, right? It’s just their problem, not yours.


2. Avoid apologizing for something you’re not really sorry for doing. Example, if you went on a shopping spree and you know your husband’s completely frustrated about it, don’t tell him you’re sorry unless you plan to cut up the credit card. Stating the words without changing motion is worthless and creates a sense of betrayal and distrust.


3. Try not to apologize tersely. If a person comes to you with a hurt and their discussion of it lasts for awhile… it’s a bit of a letdown to say absolutely nothing except “I’m sorry that I hurt you” and move on to the next order of business. While it may be sincere, there’s a disproportionate amount of words on each side. People feel better about interactions that are equal.


Then there are also ways to accept an apology. This is what has worked for me in the past:


I. Don’t start dancing a victory dance. There are some areas where you can gloat away when you win, maybe when your sports team won that game, but the correct response to a sincere apology is not, “I know! You suck! Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!” That response tends to damage trust and make future apologies as unlikely as a full-sized giraffe fitting into a thimble.


II. Try to not say, “It’s about time you saw reason” or any other version of that phrase. Apologies are hard to make – beating a person down when they are trying for authenticity is like telling a kid they’re getting coal for Christmas. It’s not so sweet.


III. A simple way to respond is with “Thank you. I really appreciate that.” A humble acceptance of a real apology is a huge step in coming back in alignment and moving toward a common goal. You may still be hurt and it’s ok to talk through that in a calm, reasoned way, but respect the one who wronged you enough to let them know their apology is valuable to you.


In college I learned 90% of conflict occurs because people are fighting for a limited resource. In a residence hall, that’s the spacious 10×10 space of a dorm room! In a professional setting it may be a promotion or accolades sparingly doled out. In a home it could be quiet time or recognition. There are so many options!


It’s ridiculous to think we’ll go through life without conflict! There will be disagreements, there will be hurts, there will be problems. So the key is to learn how to deal with the conflict gracefully and respectfully.


The wonderful thing is that even if you come from a stunted conflict background, like me!, there are skills you can learn and practice to make life more peaceful and satisfying.


And I’m all for that! How about you?


What are your tips for how to give and accept an apology?



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5 thoughts on “How To Say “I’m Sorry”

  • October 25, 2011 at 8:01 am

    I recently had my first fight with my best friend. We’ve been best friends for 13 years or so and we’ve probably irritated each other before, but this was our first down and out, tongues wagging, fingers texting, eyes crying, kind of thing. We were REALLY mad at each other. Took a couple days to work through it and we actually had to “make an appointment” for a phone call to work it all out (five kids between us made it necessary). Anyway, our apologies by that time were basically “I’m a turd!” and “No! I’m the turd!” and “But I’m freshest, stinkiest pile of turds!” and “No! I’m steaming and the poopiest by far!” kind of mature apology.

    No matter how you do it, if you’re humble and sincere, it will go a long way.

  • October 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I have found that an effective means of teaching my children to apologize sincerely is by demonstrating the process personally. 😉 Usually, it was me speaking harshly or sarcastically, or being impatient or “too busy”. Whatever the offense, when I humble myself enough (believe me, it’s quite humbling!) to get down on their eye-level and acknowledge my failure, I am able to offer them a tangible example of humility and repentance. They also learn how to graciously accept an apology and choose forgiveness.

    Like you, I didn’t learn how to appropriately address an offense until I was an adult. May my children know the liberating power of confession and forgiveness…

  • October 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    It’s really simple for me…give and accept apologies sincerely!

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