August 6, 2014

Does the title sound familiar? Chances are you originally found my blog after reading my piece on teaching kids how to apologize. I’m pretty sure that’s how Verily Magazine found me, after which they asked me to write a version of apologies for adults. So I did! You can read it below, or find it HERE.

Thanks again for reading along on my blog! =D



“Look, I said I’m sorry. Can we just drop it now?” “I’m sorry, OK? I said I’m sorry.” “All right, fine. I’m sorry. Do you feel better now?”

No, no, and no. The issue isn’t resolved just because you said sorry. No, it’s not OK. And no, actually, I don’t feel better.

When did we get this idea that two simple words had the power to absolve all offenses and heal all wounds? When did we get the idea that we were allowed to let our tongues flap loosely, make selfish decisions, and then simply shut the lid on the whole ordeal with these two little words? We may have been trained to believe that these words did the trick, but make no mistake—there is no magic in them. More often than not, these words do not absolve, they do not heal, and they do not lead to reconciliation and restored relationships.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks this, because a couple months ago, when I wrote an innocuous little post on how I taught my fourth grade class how to apologize “properly,”  I was met with millions of readers and hundreds of comments. You see enforcing this method of apology transformed my classroom: Students began to relish in the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, share intent to change, and restore friendships. The most common sentiment from my readers was that this wasn’t just a lesson for kids—it was necessary for adults! Maybe it’s because we all grew up being forced to say “sorry” too, and while it worked well enough in elementary school, it lost some of its magic once our problems grew from breaking crayons to breaking hearts. Or less dramatic things, but you know.

Here is the formula I taught my students:

01. I’m sorry for…

02. This is wrong because…

03. In the future I will…

04. Will you forgive me?

I’m sorry for cutting you in line. This is wrong because you were here first, and it was selfish of me. In the future I will go to the back of the line. Will you forgive me?

Sure, it seems like quite a mouthful for such a small matter, but here’s the important thing: that kid stopped cutting in line. For a perpetual cutter and general troublemaker, four sentences is not a very big investment. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

That’s all good and well for elementary school, but what are we adults to do? Do you really expect me to look my husband in the eye and use these formal, awkward, and uncomfortable sentence stems? I mean, really, sentence stems?

Sentence stems are not evil, I promise. But that aside, I don’t insist that adults use them. As cliché as it sounds, it’s really about getting to the heart of the matter.

01. I’m sorry for…/I apologize for…/I feel really bad about…

Start with any of these, or just say whatever it takes to get across the point that you regret something you did. Be specific.

02. This was wrong because…/It made you feel…/I wish I hadn’t because…

Address the consequences that resulted, including the other person’s emotions. The more specific, the better. This will show that you can appreciate the unhappy emotions you caused, and sometimes that is more meaningful than anything else you can say. If you’re introspective (and humble) enough, touch on how it fed some undesirable character trait of your own: pride, selfishness, laziness. It’s optional, but a little extra credit couldn’t hurt.

03. Next time…/In the future, I will…

State a clear plan to change. What’s the point of apologizing if you don’t intend to fight your natural inclination the next time a similar situation crops up?

04. Will you forgive me?

These words are humbling, but powerful. I can’t think of a better way to say it than to ask it plain and simple—with more hope than expectation.

Also consider what you are saying outside of your words: your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Nothing infuriates like an insincere apology, and I think many would agree that no apology is better than a fake one.

You’d think that after teaching, thinking, and writing about it, I’d be an expert at apologizing. But I’m not. I can be such a prideful, self-absorbed person, and I will be the first to admit that I am awful at apologizing. I’m awkward and I can’t make eye contact, and I mumble and break all my own rules.

And so I, too, find myself standing before my husband, readying myself to apologize. This means I am fighting the urge to flee and cold-shoulder it and do that huffy thing where I just stew about making up reasons why everything is really his fault and not mine. He waits, slightly miffed, wondering why I am making him stand there while I glare at the floor. Because you see, this is not a normal thing for us. Me apologizing all sincerely and everything.

I’m so flustered I can’t even think of how to say anything, so because they are the only words that come to mind, I start working my way through these childish sentence stems: “I’m sorry for…” If childish is an adjective for silly or weak, the results are anything but.

It worked. It worked on him—he visibly relaxed, his eyes softened, and he even eked out a little half-smile. And perhaps more importantly, it worked on me. My heart finally admitted to itself that I actually made a poor and selfish choice, and some part of my brain is rewired ever-so-slightly in a better direction for the future.

Was it easy? No. Do I think everyone should use sentence stems? No. You are probably a more articulate, poised, and elegant person than me and won’t need them. But if you happen to fumble with words when it’s your turn to be humble, then you might just want to keep this in mind. When it comes to resolving conflict, there’s a difference between dropping the issue and experiencing true reconciliation. Sometimes, it might just start with something as simple as choosing a better way to say “I’m sorry.”

This piece was originally published on Verily Magazine.

7 responses to “How to Apologize Properly”

  1. Dushenka says:

    Dear Joleen,

    I originally started following your blog because a friend of mine on fb linked to your article on the proper way to say sorry. The piece was so perfect because it provided access for the children in my life to a powerful tool.

    Before becoming a mother I had participated in the Introduction Leader Program at Landmark Education where the classroom leader had astonished me (and probably everyone else in the room) by saying, “Your ‘sorry’ is meaningless. I don’t care that you are sorry. What I want is for you to acknowledge what you did, recognize the impact your action had on everyone else and give us a new promise for what we can expect from you in the future.” Your proper way to say sorry accomplishes all of that AND leaves the offended person a choice of whether or not to grant forgiveness. It leaves to option of expressing, “I’m still really upset right now, but I will probably forgive you, given some space to cool off.” and since that option exists it makes it likelier that true forgiveness will result.

    Shortly after reading your article, some preschoolers were playing with my barely verbal child. My child hit one of the other children (who were slightly older) who claimed it was because my child wanted her to move out of the way and she wasn’t. I role-modeled the proper way to apologize, and even though my child refused to repeat it after me, the girl who had been hit said, “I forgive you. We’re friends. I’m sorry I didn’t move out of the way when you wanted me to. In the future I will move.” and cooperative play resumed.

    I’m so happy that you write this blog.

    • joellen says:

      Hi Dushenka! What an encouraging comment! Thanks so much for taking the time to share how you’ve learned about apologies elsewhere, and how it resonated with what I wrote. I love that you have had a positive experience using this apology, and I appreciate that you paused here to share with me!!! 😀

  2. Jill says:

    I loved that apology for my kids. I really noticed a difference!

  3. Dakota says:

    This is awesome! And I too read that first piece early on when I started following you, but I didn’t comment… because there were already quite a few!

    This reminds me of two things… first, the Non-Violent Communication method, which my husband and I implemented (not perfectly) several years ago. In that method, if you’re seeking reparation, you start with a concrete observation of what happened (not an accusation), explain how that made you feel, and what you need instead, and you ask if they’re willing to do such and such a thing…

    Your apology process seems like it’s mirrored… you observe what happened, talk about the other person’s feelings, state what you will do (what they need) and then ask for something concrete. It’s awesome, it really is. We’ve started working with our four year old to help him understand that a tossed off, funny voiced “Sorry!” isn’t going to cut it…

    The second thing is neuro-linguistic programing – where if you say something often enough you’ll believe it. Stating your intention during the apology is sort of doing that… which I find fascinating. 🙂

    Congrats on having the magazine approach you, that is really cool!

    • joellen says:

      Two very interesting ideas!! Thanks for sharing! I think it would be challenging for me to word things in a “concrete observation” kinda way, not making it too personal or accusatory. It’s worth trying, though! Maybe I need to use some neuro-linguistic programming to work my way there… ;). Cool ideas. Thanks!

  4. Scott says:

    Brilliant article! Whenever my wife and I would fight or I would wrong her in some way, I would say “I’m sorry.” More often then not, she would respond, “No, you’re not!!!” Eventually I stopped apologizing all together because I knew that she would not believe my sincerity, (even when I am!), so why bother? Now I know better. This really helps and I plan to implement this into my marriage.