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How to make a meaningful apology

‘I am sorry.’ Just three words. So simple but ‘perhaps the hardest words to say’ according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

‘We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defences and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made’

Does it sound real?

In 2014, the press gave Maria Miller, ex Culture Secretary in the UK Coalition Government, a hard time over her 34 second ’unreserved apology’ to Parliament for failing to cooperate fully with an investigation into her expenses.


What can we do?

So when it’s our turn to be vulnerable and ask for forgiveness, how should we go about it?

There’s always the temptation to beat ourselves up, to express penitence, to describe ourselves as lacking the characteristics of a ‘good human being’.

But that doesn’t wash. It does us no good to shame ourselves nor is it edifying for others to hear.

A more productive alternative is to learn from the situation without punishing ourselves.

To this end, we could reflect on what our self-judgments are telling us about ourselves and looking for the unmet needs behind those judgments.


Imagine that you have said something that led a person close to you to withdraw. What need of yours was not met?

Example: a need to be in relationship to another person

What sort of relationship?

Example: One of understanding and respect

How might you feel if that need is not met?

Example: guilty

‘Feeling guilty’ suggests that you are seeing yourself as a ‘bad person’. What else might you feel?

Example: Separate and isolated

OK that’s a consequence of the relationship breaking down. But what do you feel about not meeting your need for understanding and respect?

Example: Sad

Ah, now that’s the real pain. This is what your apology could be based on.

So you might say something like ‘When I think about how I spoke to you just now, and saw you back away, I feel really sad. It’s important for me that our relationship is based on respect and understanding – and what I said didn’t convey that’.

I predict that it would be much more satisfying to hear that sort of apology than to hear you saying you’re a bad person.