Apologies 101: Never do this one thing

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Apologies are one of the hardest things humans do since they require us to be vulnerable and take responsibility for our actions (two of the other hardest things we do).

Because of this, it common for someone go through the motions of apologizing only to leave us feeling uneasy and like they still didn’t take responsibility or understand our point of view.

Sometimes we’re the person left uneasy and sometimes we’re the “fake” apologizer. Either way, keep your eye out for this tiny little word that can change a healing apology to a harmful one.

The worst apology ever

I had a biting problem in preschool.

You take my toy? You get bit. You don’t let me have my turn at the coloring station? You get bit. I get bored? You get bit.

After a few months, it became obvious reprimands from my teachers and phone calls to my mom weren’t enough to get me to stop biting. So one day after I bit someone for knocking down my block tower, my teachers required me to spend the rest of the afternoon crafting an apology letter to read aloud during circle time.

I begrudgingly pulled out paper and crayons and put my writing skills to use. Only, I had no writing skills, so I just drew some stuff that looked like words and planned to make something up when I had to read it. By the time I was done, it was the prettiest damn apology card I’d ever seen. A true masterpiece. I couldn’t wait to show it off.

During circle time, the teacher dragged me to the center of everyone to read my apology card aloud. It was only when I saw the girl I bit staring at me with a blazing fury that I remembered I was supposed to apologize, not just show off this badass card.

Seeing her so upset riled my own emotions. It was too much for my preschooler self to face, especially in front of all my other classmates. So, I improvised.

I looked directly back at her with as much force as I could muster and said, “I’m sorry that you are so STUPID that I HAD to bite you.”

All chaos ensued. That poor little girl burst into tears and my teacher yanked me out of the circle so fast I became dizzy all the while the rest of the class bellowed with laughter. It was a flurry of injustice and I was at the center of it.

While not exactly my shining moment of pride, reflecting on this story helped me realize why some apologies heal situations and some make them worse.

What hurts vs. what helps

My circle time “apology” was obviously insincere and hurtful. If any of us received an apology like that in our adult lives, it wouldn’t be considered an apology at all.

My preschool words were blunt and unabashed. The translation is clear: it wasn’t my fault that I bit her, it was her fault for being stupid.

Unfortunately for humanity, we don’t grow out of these type of apologies that spin the blame on the other person. We just get better at using our adult words to make it more palatable.

An adult version of my apology would sound like, “I’m sorry if you were upset that I bit you.”

Does that sound more like something you’ve heard or said before?

While it may not cause the receiver to break down in tears, it is really just the grown up version of saying she’s really the one at fault for getting upset, not for me biting. Because I wouldn’t have to say that same apology if she just wouldn’t have gotten upset about me biting her.

As Harriet Learner explains in her life-changing book, Why Won’t You Apologize?, when we include the word “if” in our apologies, we’re not taking responsibility for our part. Instead, we are twisting the blame back on the person we’re apologizing to.

An apology that blames the other person’s reaction or feelings for the issue, isn’t an apology at all.

An apology that blames the other person’s reaction or feelings for the issue, isn’t an apology at all. Click To Tweet

A true apology would sound like, “I see that it hurt your arm and also your feelings when I bit you. I’m sorry.” Or even just, “I’m sorry I bit you.”

Those apologies are more likely to lead to healing because they require vulnerability and us taking responsibility for our part of the wrong doing.

Apologies 101: Never include the word “if” in your apology

Next time you apologize, be mindful of the word “if” showing up. If it does, it is a good indication that the apology is not sincere and you may consider holding off until you can fully take responsibility for your part of the problem (or decided that an apology from you isn’t necessary in that situation).

Furthermore, if someone offers you an apology with the word “if” in it, you don’t have to accept it. You also don’t have to be mean in your refusal, but you can consider saying something like, “It sounds like you are saying sorry for me getting offended instead of what you did to offend me. If that is the case, I’m afraid I can’t accept your apology.” If they keep pushing it, refer back to what a wise man in Harriet’s book said to someone who refused to take responsibility for their actions, “I guess we just see this one differently.”

Do you have someone in your life that twists the blame back on you by using “if” statements in their apologies? Or are you the one usually shifting blame onto others?

Do you think dropping the word “if” from apologies could give you a better apology experience?

Let us hear about it in the comments below!

Apologies 101: Never include the word “if” in your apology Click To Tweet

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  1. That was so enlightening! I never even considered the whole if thing. Thanks so much for posting this. I’ll be mindful of that little word…especially when I make my kids apologize.

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