Sorry

An Apology with a Reason Isn’t Really an Apology

It’s rather difficult to get through a day, let alone a week, without doing or saying something that offends/hurts/bothers/disappoints/frustrates/inconveniences, etc. someone else. That’s just life. We have goals. They have goals. And rarely are we all in sync.

  • Your parents want you to clean your room. You want to hang out with your friends.
  • Your boss wants you to get the inventory completed before you leave today. You want to complete a different project and leave on time.
  • Your best friend wants to meet you for coffee at 7:00 p.m. You want to get something done before coffee and arrive 15 minutes late.
  • A friend comes to visit and wants to spend all day with you. You want to spend time with them, but you also have 10 other things that need to get done that day.

Everyday (or at least every week) you’re going to have a goal conflict with someone.

But, it doesn’t stop there, does it? As flawed people, we all make mistakes.

  • We forget to budget in enough margin in order to make it to a meeting on time (so the other person has to wait on us)
  • We forget to call or email someone (and leave them hanging)
  • We choose to do something else (like watch a movie) and don’t study enough and end up with a bad grade
  • We get distracted and end up putting a dent in the car
  • We forget that we promised a loved one that we’d spend the evening together doing ________ together
  • We forget that we promised to pick something up at the store (and then don’t)

It just happens. We all make mistakes. The question is, “How should you handle it?

I. The Mistake Most People Make

The mistake almost everyone makes when they start to apologize (that is, if they apologize—which is a different life lesson) is they attach a reason to the apology—as if the other person wanted one. But the problem with that approach is that the other person doesn’t want a reason (at least not at first), they want an apology.

For example, let’s say you promised someone that you’d drop off a package at the post office before 5:00 p.m. and you don’t get there until 6:15 p.m. (which means the package will arrive a day later than they wanted). You clearly promised someone that you’d do something … and you clearly didn’t deliver on the promise. Case closed.

However, what do most people do when they apologize? They give reasons for not getting the package to the post office by 5:00 p.m. Who cares? The person who asked you to drop the package off doesn’t care! They don’t care about the 30 other items on your to do list. They don’t care about how someone else interrupted you. They don’t care that you were busy. They don’t care that an Arabian sandstorm swept through the neighborhood on your way to the post office. All they care about is that they asked you to do something, you didn’t, so they expect an apology.

II. The Correct Way to Apologize

The correct way to apologize is to simply say, “I’m sorry.” Not, “I’m sorry I didn’t get the package to the post office by 5:00 p.m. BUT … (and then give the other person a long list of reasons). Why? Because the moment you add a reason (or multiple reasons) you’re effectually canceling out your apology. In essence, you’re saying to the other person, “I’m not really sorry and here are the reasons why.”

Now, why do we do this? For self-preservation. In other words, when we’re giving reasons why something happened we’re trying to protect us—and therein is the reason why this is a relational killer—our focus is on the wrong person. We wronged someone else and we’re trying to protect us. Our focus needs to change from us to them. An apology isn’t meant to protect us, it’s meant to restore our relationship with the other person.

In other words, a real apology looks something like this. “I’m sorry I didn’t get that package to the post office by 5:00 p.m. I know that was important to you and I promised you that I’d get it there on time and I didn’t. I’m sorry” (and depending on the circumstance, “Will you forgive me?”). No excuses. No reasons. No self-preservation. Just a focus on the other person and how you “injured” them.

At the end of the day, it’s not about the event, it’s about the relationship. And the fastest way for you to restore a relationship that has a rift in it is to simply apologize—without a reason attached to it. Why? Because an apology with a reason isn’t really an apology.

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2 Responses to An Apology with a Reason Isn’t Really an Apology

  1. Laura Knotts August 12, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    Absolutely true, Bruce, and I agree that this is an important lesson for all relationships. Another friend, also named Bruce, shared this with me a long time ago when he told me that he had observed that most conflicts can be resolved by simply saying, “I’m sorry,” but conflicts can escalate once someone says, “but.” I often have to remind myself–no buts, no excuses, just apologize! In our marriage, Michael and I have recently remembered how we can almost always end a conflict immediately as soon as one of us says, “I’m sorry.” In fact, we say, “Let’s cut this short (the misery of being out of sorts with each other); I’m sorry.” Even if the one apologizing feels he/she was in the right, it is always true that we are sorry for the conflict. Thanks for the reminder and great letter.

    • Bruce August 12, 2014 at 7:37 am #

      Laura, great line. Conflicts can be resolved by saying, “I’m sorry,” but escalate once someone says, “But.” As well as a good marital practice. Well said. Thanks for contributing! B

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