As children we are never truly taught how or why to apologize.

When we see a child even as young as 2-years old take a toy away from another child, hit, or push we tell the offending child to “Say you are sorry” or sometimes we say, “No hit, say you are sorry.” But then we move along and keep going.

This approach creates a culture in which making mistakes or having momentary poor judgment becomes a shameful experience rather than a learning opportunity.

On a basic level when we are scolded for offending someone, we hear “You are bad. Now feel guilty about it and don’t do it again.”

We carry this mentality with us into adulthood where years and years of guilt transforms itself into shame.

Adults then become hell bent on not admitting their mistakes because it feels like a shameful experience. Yet, they know that according to our culture and the norms of behaviors that you need to say “I’m sorry” when you have offended or hurt someone. For goodness sakes we have a legal and justice system such as parole boards setup on the premise of saying “I’m sorry” in order to be granted early release.

This culture of forced apologizes mixed with shame is how we learned to apologize without really apologizing.

We all know people who are really good at apologizing without actually taking personal responsibility.

“I’m sorry what I said out of anger upset you.”

Or

“I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening”

Or people who apologize and then somehow the apology is turned back around on you.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

If you have apologized using these phrases then your apologizes are probably not getting you anywhere. The second you use the word “but” it negates what you said in front of it. It steals away the I’m sorry by placing the blame on the other person.

When you use the word “you” it dilutes the apology and again places the responsibility on the other person. Like it is the other person’s fault because they are too sensitive or too whatever. When someone tell you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.–Louise C.K.

You can have the purest of intentions and be truly remorseful for your behavior yet your apology is not showing that because you were not taught from a young age the art of The 4-Part Apology.

The 4-Part Apology

  1. Personal Responsibility
  2. Validation
  3. Genuine Remorse
  4. Repair

If your apologies are missing any one of these 4 parts than it is likely that you feel like no matter how many times you say “I’m sorry” it just doesn’t work and the relationship grows more and more distant.

Good news is that frustration can stop today simply by learning the steps of The 4-Part Apology.

Step 1: Take personal responsibility

This means to take ownership of the action that goes against your own integrity.

For example, yelling is against what I believe to be right. Which means yelling goes against my integrity. However, I am a yeller when I get angry. So if I lose my temper and yell than it is my personal responsibility to take ownership of that. No matter what the other person said or did. I had the choice and responsibility on how I respond to them. I can choose not to yell. If I make the choice to yell then it is my personal responsibility to own that error.

WHY: When you take full ownership for your action this shows the other person your understanding of the misstep and acknowledgement of the mistake. How can someone feel confident that a mistake won’t happen again if you do not even believe that what you did was a mistake. By owning the mistake then they can feel more secure that it will not occur again in the future.

Step 2: Validation of the other person

This means to state my understanding of how the other person feels.

For example, if I yell at my child then I can state that I understand that when I yell he feels scared and sad when mommy yells. If I yell at my husband then I can state that I understand that when I yell he feels disrespected and unloved.

WHY: This makes the hurt person feel seen, heard, understood, and valued. Feeling understood helps the person feel more confident that the mistake will not happen again because you know the deeper impact the error has on them.

Step 3: Express genuine remorse

This means using my words, body language, facial expressions, and actions to express my sadness and humble realization of my mistake.

Watch this 37 second video for an example of a genuine remorse

WHY: Being genuine helps the other person understand your sincerity and commitment to repairing the misstep in the relationship.

Step 4: Repair

In order for an apology to be complete a repair on the fracture in the relationship needs to be made. A repair can be as easy as a hug (as seen in the above video clip) or a more elaborate fix. The deeper the hurt and greater the fracture on the relationship then typically the more in depth the repair.

For example, if I yell at my child then my repair can be extra snuggle time to make sure he feels safe and loved. If I yell at my husband than my repair attempt can be for me to make a calm down plan to use during our next discussion in case tempers get heated I can call for a calm down period instead of reacting with yelling.

WHY: Having a repair and a plan of action to prevent the error from occurring in the future makes the other person feel confident that their feelings are safe with you and that you care enough about them to find a way to do better next time.

Bottom Line is that by using a 4-part Apology

you build TRUST within the relationship.

So next you have a misstep in your relationships practice The 4-Step Apology and see it go something like this:

Apology to my son:

“I am sorry that I yelled at you today. I know that when I yell it makes you feel scared and sad. I love you very much and I never want you to feel scared or that I don’t love you. Next time instead of yelling I will tell you I need a few minutes to calm down and then we can talk later. I hope that you can forgive me. I would like to help you feel better by giving you extra snuggles tonight. Would that be okay with you?” (Big hugs and kisses with extra snuggles that night)

Now if you are anything like me then you may need to print this out and literally use it as a cheat sheet when you are apologizing until the 4-steps become a habit for you. I’ve been practicing The 4-Step Apology for over 5-years now and I still have moments where I miss a step and need reminding. Be gracious and compassionate with yourself and your loved ones as we all practice this new skill.

The Dos and Donts of an Apology

Do

Don’t

Take personal responsibility/ownership

Make excuses

Explain why you are sorry

Become defensive

Express your understanding of how what you said/did made the other person feel

Use the word “But”

Express genuine remorse by stating how you feel about the error in judgment

Use the word “You”

State what you plan to do to repair the mistake