How to Truly Apologize and Recover Your Relationship

There is a lie that we learn as early as kindergarten. We even have a little song to help cement it in our consciousness. “Sticks and stones may break my bones. But, words will never hurt me.” It’s meant to help anesthetize us from hurtful encounters with other children and help us develop “thicker skin”. And, yes, it may indeed serve that purpose to some extent. The problem, however, is that as we age, we forget the tremendous power that words do have. They can give pleasure. But they also can hurt. Very deeply. Often worse than sticks and stones. In fact, when even one negative exchange happens, research shows that it takes as many as five positive ones to offset it. We see then that words not only have power. But, that negative words are actually more powerful than positive ones. When you find yourself having offended someone important to you with your words, here are five phrases that show you how to truly apologize–a key step to restoring the relationship.

Since 1862, appearing first in an African Methodist Episcopal Church publication called the Christian Recorder, the famous “sticks and stones” phrase has become intertwined in the American lexicon. More recently psychologist Dr. John Gottman, in his work with couples has found that it takes a ratio of five positive exchanges to counterbalance one negative exchange. In fact, it is this ratio that Dr. Gottman and his team can predict with 94% accuracy which married couples will divorce and which will survive. But, the principle of the five to one ratio extends far beyond just marriages. It is the nature of being human-certainly in Western culture.

Whether we are talking about relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, friend to friend, or co-worker to co-worker, the reality is that hurtful words will happen. Negative exchanges can happen even in good relationships. Sometimes, it happens because we speak without thinking. Other times, we let our emotions get the best of us. Still other times, we react before understanding the full context of the situation. The end result is that we damage the relationship, usually without intending to do so. There is distance and friction.

When these verbal faux paus happen it is often difficult to know how to bounce back. What do you say to put the relationship back on the right track? Of course it depends on the nature of the relationship. But, in most situations, the following five phrases, will move the relationship towards restoration — when done with authenticity.

Five Phrases of a Genuine Apology

Phrase #1: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Contrition is most always the first step towards restoring any relationship. It is imperative to show the other party that you take responsibility for your error. In addition to taking responsibility you also express regret for your behavior. Of course, both your words and your demeanor must convey a sense of sincerity or this is for naught.

Convince the other party that you are genuinely convinced that you made an error in your words or behavior. Just to be clear, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you said is factually incorrect. Some people get hung up on this point—not feeling that they should apologize when they are “right” about some topic. The point is that it was relationally incorrect.

By saying that you are sorry, you are demonstrating how the relationship is a higher priority than a fact. In other words, the relationship is more valuable than the content being discussed.

Phrase #2: “I errantly said that BECAUSE…

It is the nature of our humanity to want to understand the “why”. Amazing research on the art of persuasion convincingly demonstrates that you can often change people’s (even a stranger’s) attitude towards you or your idea just by simply giving them a reason why. Even more amazing, is that in many instances the reason why doesn’t even have to make a whole lot of sense. The research suggests that our brains are triggered by certain key words to try and accommodate. One of these words is “because”.

When you have offended someone in word or deed, sincerely explain to the person why it happened. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something super deep. It should just make sense. For instance, you might say something like “because I really wasn’t feeling well that day” or “because I didn’t get the full story before I spoke.”

By including the “because” as one of your five statements, you are helping the person that you hurt get a broader context for the transgression. In most cases, the person knows situations where they themselves may have committed such a transgression. Again, it opens the pathway for restoration of the relationship.

Phase #3: “My relationship with you is very important to me.”

This statement is a validation of what the relationship means to you. Everyone wants to know that they matter to someone that matters to them. Even in the midst of the relational infraction, this statement reinforces that the incident did not lessen the value of the relationship. It also clearly connotes that the errant words were not intended to devalue or demean.

You clearly have to make the specific words your own. But, the key point is to convince the person whom you hurt the high value and respect that he or she holds with you.

Phrase #4: “When I said that, how did it make you feel?”

This is the first phrase where you actually ask the offended party to give you some feedback. Notice that this is suggest only after the first three phrases are offered.

Your words or actions created distance in the relationship. By posing this question you demonstrate a keen interest in the feelings of the other party. It potentially gives you tremendous insight into the way in which the event impacted the person beyond just the surface level.

But, it is also just an implicit assertion of how important their feelings are to you.

Phrase #5: “I will do my best to never say that again.”
After it is all said and done, people really want to know that this won’t happen again—at least that you’ll try your best. Most people accept that you, like they, make mistakes. These people want to give you a second chance.

While the other statements are really retrospective in referring to the past mistake, this statement is forward looking (prospective). It makes a statement about what the person can expect from you in the future. As such, it is a perfect final phrase. The message is simple but critical. It says, “in a similar future situation, I will make a better decision”.

In my experience, there is no shortcut to relational wholeness. It is important to take the scenic route. In other words, I often hear people wonder why the offended person can’t just “get over it”. I’ve listen to husbands question why their wives can’t “let bygones be bygones”. I’ve sat with children who wonder why their parents “just don’t get it.”.

All of these questions suggest the need for a deeper level of engagement.

If something is not quite right in some of your meaningful relationships, I encourage you to think back as to whether (or how authentically) you communicated those five phrases during recent conflicts.

Leave a comment and let me know how easy or difficult it is for you to use these five phrases in your own relationship crises. What other powerful phrases would you suggest?