How To Apologize

Because you’re almost certainly doing it wrong

mural by: Nils Westergard

Step 1. Listen.

Actually, no.

Scratch that.

You can’t just listen and think you’re gonna get off that easy. You can’t just stop talking and absorb words and think that’s the starting point. It’s not.

Step 1. Get your head straight.

Do you love this person? If you don’t, that’s okay — do you at least care about this person? You don’t even need to care about this person as their own unique human, though that certainly helps. All you really need to do is be a decent human being who understands that your lived experience is sometimes different than other people’s lived experience and sometimes — inadvertently or otherwise — we step on each other’s toes. That’s the bare minimum — just understand that sometimes we bump into each other and bruise. Care about that.

If this is a loved one, though, you probably also love them. Get into that head space. Rather than entering into this space on the defensive — ready to push back, explain away, throw punches, or bail — get into a place where you focus on your compassion for them, and their lived experience. And, for just a moment, suspend your own. It’s their turn right now. Yours is next.

Step 2. Listen

Listen to what they’re saying. Absorb.

Seek to understand before being understood.

Step 3. Validate

Say the same things back to them. Don’t parrot. Don’t seek a “receipt” or a “gold star” or “check mark.” Don’t be a dick. Don’t forget step 1: you love them (don’t you?)

Make sure that what you said back to them mirrors what they said.

Only once they hear that it’s been absorbed and held and presumably cared for can they let their defenses down and hear your response…

Step 4. Apologize.

Here’s how an apology always goes:

“I’m sorry that I…”

Here’s how an apology never, ever goes:

Option a.) “I’m sorry that you…”

Option b.) “I’m sorry that I __, but…”

If you apologize for their experience, and not what you did to impact it, you didn’t apologize.

And if you apologize and then add any kind of disclaimer or explanation — but, except, however, just, etc. — then you did not apologize.

You just did enough to get their attention, and then you used that podium to explain away your behavior. You didn’t take responsibility. And if you don’t accept responsibility, you aren’t apologizing.

You never have to take responsibility for their feelings, but you are responsible for your own actions, especially if they were wrong.

If you don’t understand why you should take responsibility for what you did, repeat steps 1–3 until you do.

Step 5. Stop talking

You are not responsible for their response. They can choose to accept your apology or not — that’s on them. But as long as you did steps 1–4, and your heart was in it, and you weren’t being a dick or defensive while you did (see step 1 again), then you did your part.

If there’s something that you want to get off your chest, that’s cool — repeat steps 1–5 in the inverse. Only once you’re done with one person.

How to seek and accept an apology:

Step 1. Get in the right headspace

Care and compassion — see above

Step 2. State things clearly — and fairly

Don’t assign shit to them that isn’t theirs.

Step 3. Be fair.

Don’t get defensive or hurtful or mean. Don’t interrupt. Don’t belittle. etc.

Step 4. When they apologize, stop.

If the other person is the one doing the apologizing, and they’ve accepted responsibility for what they did wrong and apologized, stop berating them. I know it feels good to repeat the same thing over and over and over, but if they did step 2, and they honored the thing, it’s not fair to keep beating them up over it. If you’re still hurt, that’s fine. But if they went through steps, then you’re done. Everything else you’re feeling is yours to soothe.

And if ever either of you feel lost, just go back to step 1.

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