If you’re someone that dreads having to apologize, this blog is for you. Apologizing can already feel vulnerable and daunting, and if it’s handled poorly it can strain connection even more. As therapists it’s important to develop this skill in communication. At some point in a long and successful career, the need for an apology will inevitably be bound to happen. Therapists are imperfect mistake-making humans too, after all.
The difference between a “good” and “bad” apology can have polarizing outcomes. At best, a good apology can repair the therapeutic alliance and build trust. At worst, a failed apology can result in a deeper rift and the dreaded negative Google review that stalks your professional reputation around like a looming cloud. Every business owner knows the stakes involved; those reviews can have a far reach, and are often times written from a reactive and exaggerated headspace. Best to avoid that outcome with good communication skills.
Ideally, your apology will hold components that encourage validation, safety, understanding, mutual respect, and a path forward. Any human relationship is only as strong as the ability to repair from hurt feelings. If you know the essential components of a good apology, you’re better equipped to handle the challenging moments of conflict.
So what makes a “good” or a “true” apology? For that answer, I turn to Dr. Harriet Lerner (2017), a PhD Clinical Psychologist who researched the art and science of apologizing (amongst other topics). Her findings can be summarized into a core nine components, which she calls the “Nine Ingredients” of a true apology:
Does not include the word “but”
Avoid this word at all costs. Including the word “but” within an apology automatically has a negating or contradictory effect on your intentions. Think of a time that someone apologized to you in this way, and try to remember how it felt. Here are two examples:
YES: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use a massage technique that you found painful. We can find something else that feels better for you”.
NO: “I’m sorry that it hurt, but you’re being a bit sensitive. Some techniques are just painful”.
In the second example there’s a loaded judgment baked into the apology. The first example leaves room for the client’s input and is more client-centered.
Keeps the focus on your actions and not on the other person’s response
The hurt party isn’t looking for you to judge their hurt feelings and how they chose to express them; that’s insult to injury.The first step is always focusing on your actions within a situation that led to a challenge in the therapeutic alliance.
YES: “I’m sorry that I said something that offended you”.
NO: “I know I said something controversial, however your response was over-the-top”.
In the second example, it’s very easy for an escalation to happen because of the deflection in the apology. While true that people can be over-the-top in their responses, it’s a bad strategy to call them out on it without first taking full responsibility for our own contributions to a problem. The other party is more likely to self-reflect once you take the lead on it.
Includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation
A good apology always has an actionable component. What brings the hurt party comfort is knowing that you’ll put effort into avoiding a similar situation in the future, which often involves doing a bit of self-reflection and research.
YES: “You’re right, that was offensive. I’m going to research this subject when I get home so that I don’t perpetuate harm in the future”.
NO: “You’re right, that was offensive. Let’s forget that this ever happened”.
People don’t “forget” harm caused, especially if there’s a lingering concern that the behaviour isn’t going to be corrected. Best to show some motivation to change and follow-through on it.
Does not overdo
Keep it concise and calm. If you start rambling in your apology and over-compensating, the other party will feel like it’s less about them and more about you and your internal shame struggle. It’ll come across as less genuine because your own emotional well-being is front and centre and the client takes a backseat.
YES: “I’m sorry, I really regret saying something that insensitive. I can tell that it really hurt you and I’m committed to making this better”.
NO: “Oh my God, I am a terrible person! No seriously, I know better than that, you must think I’m a sociopath. This is so embarrassing. Please don’t hate me!”
In the second example, the apology actually isn’t focused on the hurt party at all; it instead puts pressure on the hurt person to soothe the person apologizing in the first place. That’s not much of an apology and takes the emphasis off genuine repair and more on placating the ego.
Doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it
Starting a blame game in an apology is sure to escalate the problem. Finding blame is usually a response to deflect from our own guilt involved in hurting another person. It’s uncomfortable to feel the full weight of regret, but it’s far more adaptive to allow ourselves the space to feel regret than it is to mask it with a blame battle. Regret can be a great motivator to fix a strained connection, as long as you’re ok to feel it.
YES: “I’m sorry, I definitely compensated for my own frustration by blaming you there. I know that was wrong, let me try again”.
NO: “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t have said that if you had just listened to me from the start!”
It’s clear how this strategy in avoiding regret will result in escalation. If you struggle to allow yourself to feel guilt, remind yourself that while it’s uncomfortable, guilt is adaptive and is often the birthplace of change, adaptation, and growth.
Requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance
Repeat performances are often interpreted as a lack of caring to change. That doesn’t sit well with the person on the losing end of your lack of follow-through. The most obvious example of this can be with chronically late people.
YES: “I know that I have a tendency to run late. The problem is on my end and you shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced by it. I respect your time and I will put in strategies to avoid this happening in the future”.
NO: “I can’t help it, I’m time-blind. You’ll have to just get used to it”.
I acknowledge that certain people struggle with being on-time because of a number of valid reasons, but those reasons don’t have to prevent change. I had a friend recently tell me that they have ADHD which means that they get distracted and never leave the house on-time, making them chronically late. We had an honest conversation about the impact of running late on us both; her because it increases her stress and guilt, and me because it hurts when you don’t feel like your time is valued. We had a conversation about adaptive strategies to help keep her on track in the morning, and I practiced patience and understanding for her situation which helped her feel seen for her struggles. Often times we can take responsibility for our contributions to strained relationships by making little tweaks in daily routines (example: keeping a morning to-do list, practicing patience and extending grace).
Should not serve to silence
People don’t do well when they feel they can’t bring up a point of tension out of fear of being shut-down in conversation. Remember that when people continuously bring up the same problem, it’s usually because there was an inadequacy in the apology, or a lingering fear of being hurt.
YES: “I know you’re probably bringing this up again because there’s something we failed to address completely. Can we talk about that a little more? I’m invested in properly addressing this with you”.
NO: “Not this again, come on. We’ve talked about this like 10 times already. Let it go!”.
The worst part about this strategy is that if the person does “let it go”, they likely haven’t actually let it go- they’re just not telling you that they’re still thinking about it. Staying quiet for the sake of “peace” is a double-edged sword that often leads to resentment; not good for healthy relationships.
Shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse
Sometimes, a hurt party will never be able to “receive” an apology, and in addition, having contact with the offending party can harm even more. This is of course entirely context-dependent and relies especially on the scale of the harm.
YES: Say absolutely nothing to them if you know that reaching out will create further harm; this is especially true if there is clear evidence that a person doesn’t want to talk to you (such as a restraining order).
NO: “I know you told me to leave you alone but I really need you to hear me out!”
Don’t be that person. It won’t help and it’ll create further divide and even fear.
Does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive
At the end of it all, the hurt party doesn’t owe you forgiveness, even after you’ve apologized. You can do your very best to apologize, but it’s still their choice in how they receive it.
YES: “I know I hurt you. I hope I said something here to bring us towards reconciliation, but if you’re not ready or you don’t want to take the chance, I would understand”.
NO: “What is wrong with you? I said everything right, why can’t we just move on? You really like to hold a grudge!”
Their motivation to either forgive or not forgive is their own, and not necessarily a slight against you. It might just take more time to process the hurt feelings before being able to move on. Keeping things honest and open is the best policy, since it helps you keep authentic connections. Sometimes letting people go is the best choice, and that might hurt for some time, but a safe relationship can’t be forced.
These strategies are all backed by research in human relationships, which should help ground your efforts in apologizing and repairing strained therapeutic alliances. Of course, these components are applicable to any relationship, so you can use these strategies in all contexts. Practicing good apologies is the gift that keeps giving back; you’ll develop deeper communication skills and foster closer relationships with friends, family, business partners, clients, the list goes on. There’s nothing quite as vulnerable as having to deliver an apology, but done the right way it often strengthens connection.
Lerner, H. (2017). Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. Gallery Books.
About the Author
Ashley is a Massage Therapist from Moncton, New Brunswick with a special interest in massage therapy in palliative and hospice care, and managing concussions. Outside of clinical practice, she is a Lead Instructor in our “Understanding the Complexity of Concussion” courses as well as the Editor of this website’s blog. She volunteers her time as a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of New Brunswick Massage Therapists.
Ashley decided to pursue massage therapy as a second career in order to help others. With prior experience in the field of Archaeology at the Master’s level, Ashley is an integral part of course development, helping to improve and assess the quality of our course delivery.