How To Apologize When It’s Not Your Fault

CC Image courtesy of robleto on Flickr

By Claire Doran

“I didn’t do anything! Why should I apologize?”  These words have fallen from the mouths of grumpy children across the world.  Apologies are extracted from us, unwillingly, by teachers or parents who want to gloss over conflicts, and from a very young age we’re taught to associate apologies with guilt.

In some situations, it may be enough to keep two children from fighting with each other again.  However, apologies are also frequently used to “shame” and “blame” students; more of a punishment than a reconciliation.  Because of this, it can become very difficult for adults to give a heart-felt apology, or even recognize when one is in order!

In my experience as a mediator, I find that many conflicts break through when one of the disputants apologizes.  The situation transforms.  Instead of rebuttals, retaliations, and “buts,” the conversation shifts to apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  So understanding how powerful apologies can be for our relationships and conflicts, how can we apologize to each other even if we feel like the situation is the other person’s fault?  Here’s a bit of sugar to help the apologies go down.  And who knows, you might even grow to like the taste of it!

Let’s begin by thinking about what purpose an apology serves.  One is to demonstrate care and concern for the other person.

So, what are some ways that you can demonstrate these qualities aside from apologizing outright?

Show You Care: Inquiring about the well-being of the other person or their family can communicate concern and kindness.  Instead of walking past them when you see them, it can mean a lot to pause and say “Hi, I just wanted to see how you are doing today and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”  Even if they brush you off, you’ll know that you’ve done your part to try and convey concern.

Remember Details: Especially when you’re in conflict with another person, it is helpful to remember specific details so you don’t come off as heartless when you can’t remember the name of their dog (which you ran over).  It all comes back to the truism: “there’s no such thing as being good at remembering names or bad at remembering names; you either care enough to remember or you don’t.”

Apologize For The Impact: Many times conflicts arise because we weren’t aware of the impact of our actions.  We may have thought that we were doing our neighbor a favor by pulling out plants (we thought were weeds) along our common fence line, only to later find out that the plants held a certain spiritual or emotional significance for the person.  In these cases, you can always apologize for the impact of your actions.  For example, “I am so sorry for your loss of those plants.  I can see now how much they meant to you.”

Apologies are powerful.  Through words, we recognize how deeply our actions can influence another person’s experience and emotions.  So if you’ve held on to a deep-seated aversion to apologies, ask yourself: “What have I missed out on by not apologizing?”  “What could my relationships look like now if I showed that I cared, remembered details, and apologized for my impact even when it’s not my fault?”

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