3 Ingredients of an Apology (for any relationship conflict)

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Trevor forgot that his friend’s Abby’s birthday party was the night before.  He sees the phone reminder the next day and feels guilty that he unintentionally ditched his friend’s party. He questions if he should send a text to apologize for missing the event, but he decides not to. Meanwhile Abby is hurt that Trevor never came and is a little worried that something might be wrong.  

Many people get in fights with their loved ones. We live in an age where there is a lot of conflict and not a lot of resolution and reconciliation. But beyond that we are also human and to be human is to err. Even if we haven’t made intentions to cause harm to others we may inadvertently find that we have done just that.  

I have a saying that it is not the avoidance of ruptures that maintain a relationship, but when the ruptures happen we work on the repair. Ruptures will happen in any type of relationship: romantic, familial, peer, professional, etc. We can not avoid these ruptures all the time. However when we avoid the repairs (on either side) then it causes a stagnation of the trust in the relationship. Then without trust our relationships can not survive.  

Trevor in this scenario is avoiding confronting a conflict with Abby because he doesn’t want to see her upset, but by doing things he might create more tension between them. Trevor might try to avoid Abby because he feels guilty. Abby might be a little cold towards Trevor because she never found out what happened. However just saying “I’m sorry” may not be enough to repair the rupture. Abby might need her version heard and Trevor to understand how it impacted her.  

There are three key ingredients that an apology needs to include in order to rebuild trust.

First Ingredient: Accountability 

First, the ownership of doing something wrong.  Even if there was no intention of harm it is important to acknowledge harm has occurred.  Many people get caught up in the cycle of someone trying to justify that they have been hurt while the other person is trying to plead their cause. The offender may try to explain why they behaved the way they did. Their hope is often to try and get on the same page they will understand what their intentions were and there was no reason to be hurt. The hurt party feel like the other person is trying to get out of trouble, or that they are being “irrational” to be hurt the way they were, or that they are overreacting. This causes them to become defensive as well.  

This is the cycle that I call ‘two conversations.’  The offender is trying to explain their side of the story and wants the hurt party to see where they are coming from. Meanwhile the hurt party is trying to make sure the offender knows why they are hurt. Both are saying “You’re not listening to me!” and neither gets to feel heard.  It is easier to make sure you tackle one conversation at a time.  

For the offender it may help to listen at first to get the information they need to understand the situation.  Ask questions. Make sense of things. Understand where they feel hurt. It is hard to understand ownership if you don’t understand their point of view.

Trevor had no intention of missing Abby’s party.  He might try to justify that he totally had planned on coming but got too distracted with a work project and didn’t look at his calendar.  This might seem reasonable, but if he goes into the conversation trying to justify his actions then him and Abby will likely get caught in the ‘two conversations’ and not stay on topic.  Instead Trevor went up to Abby and said “This doesn’t justify my behavior but here is what happened and because of that I missed your party.”

Second Ingredient: Empathy

This ingredient is mostly about communicating understanding. Once you have an idea of what happened, a couples therapist will usually encourage people to repeat back, in their own words, what they heard.  How was the other party hurt? What emotions did they feel? Similar to what was stated above, most people who offend want to put things into context, but the people hurt what the other to understand how they were hurt first. Being able to communicate that you hear and understand how they other party is hurting is helpful in helping them feel heard. If they feel heard they may be able to hear your side of the story.  

I often ask people to think of a talking stick, on old tool used in elementary school.  Whoever has the stick gets to talk and everyone else listens. Instead of talking over each other, focus on who will talk and who will listen first. Don’t interrupt the one with the “talking stick” but focus on listening and being able to repeat back what you heard. This might take some tries or what I call editing.  

  • What I heard you say is you’re upset with me because I didn’t value you as a friend by not coming to your party. (Trevor’s assumptions)  
  • No what I’m trying to get across is I was worried about you and I thought you were angry with me and I didn’t enjoy my party because I kept wondering why you were mad at me.  (Abby’s call for edit and conveying her feelings and experience)
  • Oh so you are upset because you didn’t know what was going on and you were trying to make sense of it.  That stopped you from enjoying your own party. That really sucks. I didn’t want to cause that for you.  (Trevor repeating back Abby’s experience and feelings)
  • Yes.  (Abby confirming he is correct)

Editing allows the parties to get on the same page and make sure things are not misconstrued. Language, particularly emotional language, can easily be misunderstood so allow editing to occur.  

Once someone feels heard they are more likely to then be the listener.  The offending party has information as well that needs to be heard. It is now time for the talking stick to switch hands and for the hurt party to gather information.  Both sides need to be validated in their own experiences. Someone can validate that the intention wasn’t to hurt, but they can still validate that the impact was that the event hurt.  

Once Abby feels validated and heard and Trevor understands why Abby felt hurt, Trevor had some of his own feedback.  Trevor conveyed that he had no way of knowing how distracting that was for Abby and wished he had known. Abby acknowledged she might have done things differently too, which brings us to our last ingredient.   

Third Ingredient: Change

How will we know this won’t happen again?  Now that all the information has been shared, how can you build a plan to rebuild trust. Brene Brown gives the visual of a marble jar to represent trust. When someone does good things or respect our boundaries and secrets they get marbles.  When people hurt us or violate our boundaries they lose marbles.  

What makes the typical ‘I’m sorry’ ineffective is that it doesn’t bring about change that will make sure events are not repeated.  If they are repeated then more and more marbles are lost and people start pulling away and/or become resentful. Building a plan together allows the relationship to build new understanding about how not to repeat offences AND build more trust back into the relationship.  By building a plan and sticking with it, it allows more marbles to be put back into the jar. It should be pointed out building the plan gains some marbles, but following through is really where to regain the deplenished marbles.  

Trevor promises to be more communicative about missing events in the future.  He also recognized that he is letting his work get in the way of his social life so he needs to keep that in check in the future. Abby also states that she’ll reach out to Trevor if he is missing so he can communicate what is going on. Hearing Trevor’s feedback Abby realized that if she was stuck in her in her head and she could have done some things differently for her own benefit.  

Some people are conflict avoidant and often don’t ask for solid apology.  Sometimes people just want to get back to the same page and get over the conflict as quickly as possible.  However being able to do the repairs after a rupture helps maintain relationships. If we don’t do the repairs (either by confronting and asking for them or listening and forming them) then trust within the relationship is lost.  When the marble jar of trust becomes depleted then there is nothing holding the relationship together.  

Trevor initially wanted to avoid talking or even just give a brief text of an apology, but by making a formal apology they were able to rebuild trust and create boundaries to improve their relationship.  This doesn’t mean that the trust is fully restored. Marbles still need to earned and some of the changes need to be witnessed over time to rebuild that trust.  

This may not be easy work and it is often better to do this sooner than later.  By having these conversations we nurture the relationships that we want to maintain.