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Anatomy of an Apology

Written by Ganz Ferrance on . Posted in Blog

Click on the photo for the 5-minute segment on CTV News!

Click on the photo for the 5-minute segment on CTV News!

As we head into “the month of love” and Valentine’s Day, it’s good to look at not just the romantic aspect of relationships, but also what goes into building and maintaining a lasting relationship long after all the chocolates are eaten and the flowers have died.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my 25+ years of practice is that people don’t always get how, when, or even why to apologize—much less knowing how to do it so that it lands right (instead of triggering Armageddon).

Even though we as Canadians are known for saying “sorry” a lot, sometimes we don’t know exactly how, when, and why. Here are some thoughts and ideas that will help you understand the Anatomy of an Apology and say “sorry” right the first time (so it doesn’t keep coming back and biting you in the butt).

Why should you apologize?
You apologize to fix the relationship not because of the obligations of society (my insightful 15-year-old daughter said this). Something happened where the other person was hurt and the relationship was damaged to some extent. When you say “sorry”, it’s your attempt to repair the damage so you guys can continue the way things were or build things even better. By the way, you really do build things even stronger when you say “sorry”. The act of putting in the effort to make things right builds depth and intimacy in your relationship, to an even greater degree than if you hadn’t messed up in the first place. (When you weld a break in a piece of metal the split you fixed is actually stronger than the unbroken metal on either side of the weld.) But don’t intentionally screw things up just so you could build intimacy faster—it doesn’t quite work that way. Wait until you screw up naturally. You probably won’t have to wait too long.

When should you apologize?
There is no “best before date” on saying “sorry”. Whenever you realize or are made aware that you have hurt someone, it’s totally appropriate to apologize; even years later, a heart-felt apology can be extremely meaningful to the person receiving it. But of course, the earlier you do it, the more quickly you guys can get back to enjoying your relationship. Never think that too much time has passed or that it would be silly to do it after all this time.

But don’t say “sorry” just to make the problem go away. First off, it will seem fake and then you totally lose credibility for the future. Secondly, it’s not fair for you to take responsibility for things that aren’t yours—you rob the other person of his/her opportunity to grow and you’ll start to resent the relationship and the other person after a while.

What is an apology?
When you apologize, you are letting the other person know that you are taking responsibility for how your actions caused them pain—whether you intended it or not!

An example I use a lot in my talks and with my clients is if I walk over to you to give you a birthday present, but I stumble and step on your toes. Most reasonable people would think that it would be a good thing to say “sorry”. I would be acknowledging how my actions (stepping on your toes) hurt you, even if my intent was to help you (delivering your gift). So you don’t need to have bad intent to offer an apology. You only need to have caused the other person pain. Just acknowledge the other person’s feelings and take ownership for your actions.

So when you say “sorry”, you’re NOT saying that it was entirely your fault. In fact, you’re not saying anything about fault at all because it’s not about blame. It’s about the fact that your behaviour impacted another person in a negative way. Whether you were correct in what you said or did or not, you are “sorry” about the fact that you hurt the other person in some way. You’re just being responsible and grown up.

An apology is also NOT a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength and maturity. People respect others who can own their own stuff. You grow in the eyes of other healthy people—not shrink. If someone thinks you saying sorry is a sign of weakness, then that says a lot about his/her own sense of confidence and emotional health.

“Sorry” is also NOT a magic word that guarantees you’ll be forgiven. If you really care about the other person, you will understand (and even let them know) that he/she may need some time to let the apology sink in and feel safe with you again. You can’t force someone into being in relationship with you—especially a healthy relationship. It’s about inviting someone back, NOT taking hostages.

What does a good apology look like?
The truth is that the best apology is the simplest apology: “I’m sorry that I hurt you in this way (A) by doing (B). I’d like to (C) to try and make it right for you if you’ll let me and if it doesn’t make it worse for you.” You acknowledge that you hurt the other person and identify his/her feelings if possible; you identify and take responsibility for your behavior; you offer to make it right; and then you STOP TALKING! Most people can understand the first three parts, but mess up by not shutting up. Anything you say after this weakens the apology. If he/she asks you what was going on or for clarification, THEN you can give it, but this is NOT the time for explanations (and definitely not excuses) without being asked for one!

Example: “I’m so sorry I broke your toe when I stepped on your foot. Can I take you to the hospital or get you some ice?”

What does a bad one look like?
By the way, if you really want to screw up your relationship, you can also use the word “sorry” in one of these abusive ways that puts the other person in the wrong, rather than taking any fault yourself:
  • “Sorry your toe is broken.” (Denying your role in the toe-breaking.)
  • “Jeeesse, I’m sooorrrry!” (Dripping with sarcasm and with the obligatory eye-roll.)
  • “Sorry your feet are so big,” or, “Sorry your toes are soooo sensitive!”
  • “Sorry I broke your toe, but you know I’m clumsy. It’s not my fault!”
  • “Sorry I broke your toe, but if your feet weren’t in the way or you were smart enough to wear steel-toed boots, none of this would have happened!”
I think you get the idea. If you really care about the other person, don’t make his/her pain or your actions his/her fault.So remember: acknowledge how your actions caused the other person pain, offer to make it right, and then SHUT UP! You’ll not only be able to fix your relationship when you mess up, but you’ll be able to build strength and intimacy with the person you care about. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Health, Love, Happiness, Success
Dr. Ganz Ferrance


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Ganz Ferrance

International Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur and Registered Psychologist Dr. Ganz Ferrance is on a mission to help you "Live Bigger so you can Give Bigger". Since 1991, he has helped tens of thousands people "Make More Money, Have Better Sex, and Live Longer Lives". Dr. Ganz prides himself on providing " Tweed-Free" consultation, education, coaching and therapy - giving you cutting-edge information and the "straight goods" without all of the psycho-babble, victim-making, or intellectual double-talk. Dr.Ganz holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and an M.A. in Developmental and Educational Psychology from Andrews University in Michigan. He is the former Public Education Coordinator as well as the former Vice-President of the Psychologist's Association of Alberta. Dr. Ganz enjoys sharing how people can get more "mileage" from their lives. Whether one-on-one or from the stage, Dr. Ganz's easygoing, friendly and humorous style quickly makes you feel at home, comfortable and safe. This ability has made him a favorite with the media. For the past 5 years, Dr. Ganz has been delivering monthly segments on CTV Edmonton's News at Noon and has been interviewed several times for a variety of other publications, radio and television programs such as CTV's Good Morning Canada, Help! TV, Alberta Prime Time, CBC Radio, The Edmonton Journal .

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