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What to Do When "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Work

by Dr. Lynn Margolies

Published, PsychCentral, 2014


We all mess up at times with our spouses, kids, and others important to us. Misunderstandings and empathic failures cannot be avoided in close relationships, but aren’t necessarily detrimental. In fact, the ongoing climate of relationships is typically impacted most by how rifts are handled - deepening bonds or fueling resentments.

Hurts that are ignored or ineffectively repaired can function like clogged arteries psychologically - producing cumulative blockages to connection. Often the instigating issue seems trivial on the surface, but even these obstructions often need clearing to restore the natural flow of relationships.

Though some people cannot say, “I’m sorry” at all, a necessary ingredient of repairs, many people readily apologize but find it doesn’t get them very far - or even aggravates the problem. In such cases, the lack of success is typically attributed to the other person holding a grudge. But, often the reason resentment lingers is because the apology didn’t hit the spot. In most relationships, everyday interpersonal infractions can be easily repaired if an effective approach is used. (More complex approaches are needed for betrayals of trust and deeper underlying issues.)

Why some apologies don’t work

Tori accused Jared of being condescending when he was helping her with a technical problem. He apologized, as he did previously in similar situations but, again, only made things worse. Examples of Jared’s apologies include:

• “I’m sorry.” (Empty. These words can be used even if Jared isn’t paying attention.)

• “I’m sorry you feel I was condescending.” (Disguised way of blaming Tori. Subtext: “You’re overly sensitive - you’re the one with the problem.”)

• “I’m sorry I sounded condescending BUT you weren’t getting it.” (Good beginning but the apology is sabotaged by a “but,” introducing Jared’s justification.)

• “I’m sorry I was condescending BUT you are always condescending to me.” (This apology is used as a tit for tat segue to bring up Jared’s gripes.)

The mindset behind successful apologies involves the attitude that regardless of how you were feeling, what the other person did, or what you intended - you wish you had handled the situation better. Apologies that work include staying focused on the topic of the other person’s experience, asking for clarification until you get this right, taking responsibility for what you did that was hurtful, and waiting until the other person feels understood before bringing up your own gripes or clarifications.

As Jared recognized the problems with his approach and learned new tools, he found that he had the power to settle Tori and resolve the tension between them: “I know you’re upset, Tori. I want to try to make things better. Even if it’s obvious, if you explain what I did and how it made you feel, I’ll try to get it.”

After Tori explained, Jared considered these options:

• “I’m sorry I used a tone that sounded condescending. I understand now that this made you feel like I wasn’t respecting your intelligence - and I feel bad about that.”

• “I’m sorry I came across as condescending. I wasn’t aware I was sounding that way. I understand that it made you feel like I wasn’t seeing you clearly and I feel bad about it - especially since I do respect your intelligence.”

Then, once Tori felt understood, Jared considered these clarifications:

• “Maybe it’s because I’m so used to talking this way at work.”

• “Maybe I was feeling impatient, but I don’t mean to be taking that out on you.”

• “I’m not really sure why I seem to be coming across condescending, but I don’t want to be that way with you.”

Jared’s new apology options allowed Tori to feel understood and cared about because, instead of defending himself, he stayed focused on explicitly recognizing that how he spoke to her made her feel put down. He listened and mirrored back what she said. Afterwards, he offered thoughtful reflection (different than defensiveness) - resisting the temptation to subtly invalidate her feelings, blame her, or otherwise justify what he did.

Other barriers to apologizing

Disconnects in relationships can lead to confusing stalemates instead of resolution when we assume that left-brain thinking and logic will settle things, are not on to ourselves, and/or believe that everyone should think the way we do. A common obstacle to resolving conflicts is the conviction that we shouldn’t have to apologize because we didn’t do anything wrong. But getting caught up in being “right” fuels the divide. If one person is right, the other is wrong. From a relational standpoint, everyone loses.

Misunderstandings and the feeling of being “right” can result from an incongruity between the intent of a communication or deed, and the other person’s reaction. This can be caused by inadequate communication, or by feelings and unconscious processes impacting the subtext or “melody” of a message. For example, unexpressed feelings such as irritation, impatience, or resentment may leak out without awareness through tone, pitch, and wording - transmitting a metacommunication to the other person’s brain which overrides innocuous content. Mismatched communication may also result from the other person failing to read us accurately due to his/her own unconscious feelings projected onto us.

Other unconscious issues can also be barriers to apologizing. For example, acknowledging having hurt a loved one may be unconsciously avoided because it evokes unwarranted feelings of badness and guilt, replaying childhood dynamics with a parent who prohibited emotional separation and imposed an emotional burden. Here, being empathic and owning up leads to over identification with the imagined suffering of the other person, along with an exaggerated sense of fault and emotional responsibility. Apologizing can also feel instinctively dangerous for people who have learned from experiences growing up with neglect or abuse of power that showing vulnerability is unsafe or foolish.

Satisfying relationships involve a back and forth between separateness and connection, bridging the gap between ourselves and others through a meeting of minds. Successful apologies are a blend of respecting the other person’s subjective experience without judgment, and recognizing what we did to evoke it. Making things right again when we hurt the other person involves apologizing in a way that shows we see, understand, and care about his/her feelings and point of view. Using this approach, and being on to possible unconscious issues, we can effectively loosen the knot when there’s a rift, restoring peace and enhancing connection.

5 Steps to apologies that work:

1. Take a break until you’re both calm. Then, when you can approach in the spirit of reconciliation, ask for a brief description of what you did and how it made the other person feel.

2. Clear your mind and listen carefully. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

3. Be explicit in summarizing - from the other person’s viewpoint - what you did and the effect on him/her even if unintended, without reacting or adding to it. Mirroring demonstrates that you in fact listened and understood, and is therefore typically calming - allowing the other person to feel seen and heard. This often resolves the offended person’s need to be repetitive.

4. Offer a thoughtful, genuine explanation or guess of why you might have acted in a way that ended up being hurtful. This involves introspection and owning up to your part in what happened and should NOT include blaming the other person. If the truth is that you felt wronged, details about what the other person did should not be given until later.

5. Be willing to consider a plan for how to do better next time.

Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in relationships.



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