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How a Good Apology Can Change Your Life

Take Back Your Power in Four Moves

A good apology is a superpower. Master it with just four simple actions and you can change your life.

Okay, so nobody’s perfect. At some point or other, we all screw up. We’ve lost a borrowed sweater, shouted mean things in anger, or accidentally sideswiped a parked car. What can set you above most other people is the ability to deal with those mistakes quickly, effectively, and confidently.

Wait, seriously? Yep. Knowing how (and when) to admit when you’re wrong and facing it squarely with a good apology—well, it’s power. Power to heal strained relationships, sort out misunderstandings, and persuade hostile forces—be they spouses, friends, foes, in-laws or bosses—to stand down.

Here’s an example.You’re at a bar with friends, three cocktails in. On a group visit to the restroom, you all start talking about another friend who’s not there—her boyfriend problems, her weight gain. Suddenly one of the stalls opens and out she comes. Her eyes streaming tears, she singles you out and shrieks, “I thought you were my friend!”

Obviously, you owe her an apology. Right?

Now, now—no excuses. Never mind that the others joined in the gossip-fest or that what you said was mostly true. That’s just another way of saying, “It wasn’t my fault”—a major stumbling block to any apology.

What matters is the damage is done, and if you care at all about your friendship, you’ll try to make it right, or risk causing more damage and feeling guilty, resentful, and defensive. Once you start crossing the street to avoid someone you’ve offended, it’s downhill from there.

A good apology breaks down into four simple steps:

  1. Admit it.
  2. Express it.
  3. Fix it.
  4. Change it.

True, it’s not for the faint of heart. A good apology demands self-awareness, honesty, and a big slice of humble pie. We need to own our mistake, recognize the damage it caused, and resolve to make things right.  

There are a bajillion ways to cause harm, and we’ve all been there: We pressed send. We went over our boss’s head, humiliating her. We got drunk and ruined our cousin’s wedding. We slept with our ex who’s now married to someone else.

Admit it.

A good apology starts with an unflinching self-appraisal: What did you do? Why was it wrong? Take a hard look at what you did. You know the cues. Remember how it felt when you were little and broke a friend’s toy or yelled back at your dad? That’s what I call “the uh-oh feeling in your tummy.” Don’t run from that feeling—it’s your conscience, and it will help guide you out of the mess you’re in.

Express it.

Next, face your victim and say the words. Usually (although not always) the words are “I’m sorry.” This is bafflingly difficult for some people, but you won’t get anywhere by dodging them. The first rule of a good apology is to do it promptly, or risk re-offending. Say it simply and without excuses: “I’m sorry you overheard those awful things I said. I hope you can forgive me.”

Fix it.

Lately the news and social media are rife with public apologies aimed at fixing the offender’s reputation. What’s missing from those apologies is restitution—making things right for the person who was harmed. Whatever you did, saying you’re sorry is meaningless if you fail to repair the damage. Don’t wait for it to find you. Lean in. Ask your friend how you can make it up to her. She might surprise you, like the time a friend told me, “I miss you. Could we go out for lunch, just the two of us?” But even if she’s still furious and needs a break from your friendship, at least you’ve done the right thing by apologizing.

Change it.

While the words of an apology are important, they mean nothing if you don’t back them up. If you’ve agreed to some action that will make things right, follow through. Keep your promise to be a better friend. Stop cheating on your lover. Be supportive of your boss, nice to your server, patient with your messy mate.

A good apology—well-delivered—can improve your relationships, boost your confidence, and help you feel more hopeful, brave, capable, and in control. So stop feeling guilty and give it a try. Watch mistrust give way to warmth and forgiveness. Watch hope replace the feeling that nothing will ever change. Enjoy the freedom that comes from a clear conscience—which, as my grandma used to say, is the softest pillow.

Not Just Words by Donna Moriarty, available here.
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