4 Ways to Make Apologizing Less StressfulNone By Steve Calechman
“I’m sorry.” Two little words that have the power to head off resentment, derail an argument, or salvage a relationship. But for some of us, the three syllables are a bit too much. At times, we can feel like apologizing is an admission that we’ve caused harm or that we aren’t as good as we thought we were. “Apologizing threatens our sense of self,” says Karina Schumann, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social psychology at University of Pittsburgh. Rather than simply expressing regret, we balk, justify, and distance ourselves by casting blame.
Ego can also get in the way. In times that are already divisive, a discussion can easily turn into a heated debate, where people are trying to score points rather than listen. “Then the interaction becomes more about wounded pride and how we feel about being wrong,” says Debra M. Roberts, LCSW, a communications specialist and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Defuse and Build Healthier Relationships.
All that plus the stress of not knowing how an apology will be received can stop us from acting—even when we know saying “I’m sorry,” is what’s in order. That’s why it’s key to remember the benefits of expressing regret: Saying “sorry” recognizes the other person’s feelings and how important they are to you. “That’s how we connect,” Roberts says.
The next time you’re having trouble getting out those two little words, consider the following advice.
Clear Up Any Confusion
Often the problem is one of perception. You say or do something you think is innocuous. The other person is livid and/or hurt. “You’re caught off guard by their reaction and get defensive,” says Carl Hindy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? What may have started as a misunderstanding has now become a full-blown fight. The more you dig in, the more embarrassing it becomes to correct the mix-up. To change the dynamic, play detective. Ask yourself, “Is that the reaction you wanted or expected?” Then consider what went wrong and how you can fix the message. You can also think about times you’ve been hurt and what would have made you feel better. This clarity-finding process is two-fold, notes Hindy: It makes you more rational, and it taps into empathy to nudge you to take the next step and apologize.
Mean What You Say
While every apology is different, the common required thread is sincerity. Think about what the other person needs to hear in order for you to truly make amends. It’s not unusual to have a disconnect between what one person heard and what the other meant. For example, your partner asks if you like their shirt. You say, “No,” which doesn’t go over well. Begin by acknowledging their feelings and follow up by saying, “I didn’t say that to hurt you. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt you.” That last line is critical, says Roberts. “You’re acknowledging the harm and reiterating that that wasn’t the goal.”
The apology also needs to fit the offense. With smaller misdeeds, it’s not so much the words you say but the effort that registers, notes Stacy L. Young, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. According to preliminary findings from her study on apologizing, one element that people always appreciate, regardless of the severity of a transgression, is when someone takes responsibility for their actions. It means not making excuses, which can “feel like you don’t really regret what you did,” says Young. “There’s no accountability when you throw in a qualifier.”
Focus on the Relationship
Here’s one common roadblock people encounter after a fight: You’re willing to apologize, and know that you bear some responsibility, but you fear going first will let the other person off the hook. While that could happen, remember that apologizing does not involve competition. If you’re truly sorry, says Young, make your apology and hope that the behavior will be mirrored back. “It often is,” she says.
Getting a little emotional distance first can help. Research has shown that when you can reappraise a conflict, there’s a decrease in related distress. Get out of your head by thinking about the relationship and what it means to you. Focus on the fact that this person feels that you have wronged them in some way. “If they’re important to you, how they feel should matter,” says Roberts. “That should drive your willingness to make an apology.”
Create a Finish Line
Worrying that the discussion will never end and that hurt feelings will linger can prevent you from expressing regret. To short-circuit this fear, end your apology with: “Please give me the benefit of the doubt.” This way, you give the recipient a responsibility to either let bygones be bygones, admit that what happened will be tough to get past, or something in between. It can also enable him or her to recognize this transgression as a blip, not a character flaw. The best part is that it brings the apology to a close; and, knowing there’s an end can make it easier to begin.
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