Empathy & the Empathetic Apology: New, Improved "I am sorry."

Apologies are essential in our relationships. No matter how they are given, whether through an apology letter or in person, apologies recognize that hurt has happened due to the actions of another. Without that recognition, bitterness and resentment can build.

When given freely and sincerely, apologies hold the power to be precious. They say, “I have screwed up and have hurt you.” Are we able to mend and move forward in our relationship in spite of the screw-up? Will the experience result in greater distance or more closeness and understanding?

Apologies are more than saying I am sorry.As a new parent, I struggled with the forced apologies that I witnessed. Toddlers were regularly asked by an adult, “Tell your friend you’re sorry,” followed by a half-hearted or meaningless “I am sorry.”

The story goes something like this: Two small children are playing together. Samara, a slightly bigger and stronger child, grabs a toy from Ginny, a more docile child, which makes her cry. A parent or teacher intercedes by saying something like, “Samara, you stole Ginny’s toy; now go, give it back, and tell her you’re sorry.”

So, on cue, (what choice does she have!?) Samara heads over to Ginny and says, “I am sorry.” There are endless combinations of how this story might unfold. To my point, Samara was just told to say, “I am sorry,” even when quite possibly she is not sorry at all. So, what has the adult accomplished? And is this the beginning of forced or insincere apologies?

Related reading for parents: "Why Sorry Matters and How to Encourage Empathy and Heartfelt Apology."

It is due to these types of situations that “I am sorry” has lost its true meaning and redeeming power.

At about the same time, “I am sorry,” was rapidly losing its effectiveness, the art of empathy began to be a common theme in parenting and relationship, self-help, therapy, and life coaching literature. All this literature about empathy emphasized how another person feels, which accented the importance of acknowledging how personal actions affect others, and the Empathetic Apology (EA) was born.

Introducing the Empathetic Apology

The Empathetic Apology is a four-part process designed to help the offender take ownership of the offense, empathize with the offended, apologize for the offense, and then ask forgiveness. The empathetic apology is much harder to deliver than, “I am sorry,” because the EA asks a person to take ownership of an offense and empathize with the offended before apologizing. The EA allows for reconciliations that invoke conversations to more easily create a genuine path to forgiveness.

“I am sorry,” does not require someone to own their behavior, nor does the phrase identify or acknowledge the emotional discomfort of the offended. Without this clarity, there is no real empathy. “I am sorry,” jumps straight to the apology—like handing over a “get out of jail free card”! A quick, unfelt apology does not readily leave an open window for conversation, reconciliation, or forgiveness.

The Empathetic Apology asks a person to say out loud: My behavior hurt you. My behavior impacted you, causing you discomfort.

The Empathetic Apology requires sincerity and courage. EA can actually make the offender squirm. When the person feels more deeply how their actions affected the other person, it anchors a change of heart and provides more exceptional care in the relationship. The squirm is evidence that the offender knows their actions have impacted the other person. The Empathetic Apology makes apologies precious because of the squirm; it is recognition of the discord.

Related reading: "What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?"

So how does the Empathetic Apology work?

Authentic apologies require empathy.

Four Parts of an Empathetic Apology

Simply fill in the blanks below to put together the four parts an empathetic apology:

1 I realize my ___________, (put your behavior here, i.e., critical words, broken promise, or anger)   2 hurt you because you responded with ____________, (fill in the offended person’s emotions here) and   3 I apologize.   4 Will you forgive me?

Part one allows the offender to own their behavior.

Part two allows the offender to empathize with the one offended.

Part three is the official apology.

Part four allows the potential closure of the wound.

The Empathetic Apology pushes you to build and utilize higher relationship skills. It asks you to identify what you did and how it affected the other person. It also asks the other person to re-connect with you through forgiveness. Not only is an apology made, but the EA also creates a space for a conversation, which allows both parties to share their perspectives. This exchange helps develop solutions to prevent such offenses in the future, boosting the quality of the relationship.

The Empathetic Apology opens the door to conversation, reconciliation, and re-connection, three critical components of all relationships.

Forgiveness: a Journey Back to the Heart

The last part of the Empathetic Apology, the forgiveness part, can make some people feel very uncomfortable. For some, it is too churchy; for others, it is too much pressure. The reason it is part of the EA is that it is about the potential closure of the wound. Sometimes, forgiveness can happen in the moments right after the EA is delivered, but other times, forgiveness might take a while. Hurt can require considerable time to heal, depending on the severity of the offense. Apologies, of any sort, do not necessarily mean that forgiveness is a must, but often, transgressions are minor enough, so forgiveness is an option.

Relationships are full of mistakes and hurt, small and large. These offensives create opportunities to learn about each other and re-connect in our relationship in a new and deeper way.

Unresolved conflicts can cause a canyon to form between people; resolving hurts and conflicts bring closeness and connection between people.

Conflict asks us to get curious about one another and learn more about what offends and what lifts one another. The Empathetic Apology helps change conflict to closeness. And when we model and teach our children the empathetic apology, they’ll naturally develop authentic caring and empathy for others, not just a forced response imposed by others.

Next time, you offend someone, try using an Empathetic Apology, because what do you have to lose? You’re already in the Dog House, after all.

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Britta HubbardBritta Hubbard
Britta Hubbard has been a parent educator, working within the framework of Redirecting Children's Behavior, for four years. Conducting classes, introductory seminars, and over-the-phone sessions to help individuals with their parenting challenges. She has been a Middle School Family and Consumer Science teacher for six years empowering adolescents in personal development and financial education. Her work was featured in Dr. Harry Wong's First Days of School publications and presentations. In addition to these occupations, Britta Hubbard faces her own joys and challenges in navigating the demanding landscape of being a parent of two young boys. She currently lives on Colorado's Western Slope and spends as much time as possible drinking herbal tea with her husband, sons, family, and friends while gazing at the beauty of the world around her.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence