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How To Apologize (And How NOT To)

"At your highest moment, be careful. That's when the Devil comes for you." -Denzel Washington to Will Smith after "The Slap" It's old news by now, but during Super Bowl LVIII, an emotionally escalated Travis Kelce (age 34) used physical force to get his point across to Coach Andy Reid (age 65) on the sidelines in front of 115 million viewers. Coach Reid was not prepared as Kelce approached from the side, made contact with the coach's torso, and knocked Reid off balance. Kelce did this while demanding to be put back in the game after the called plays had left him on the sidelines.

Travis and his brother, Jason, host a very popular podcast called "New Heights". It is currently ranked 6th among all podcasts with a following of 2 million people. On this podcast, Travis offered a form of apology to his coach. He made a few possibly dismissive statements, and then said "So, Big Red, sorry if I caught you with that cheap shot, baby."

Now, I'm gonna split hairs here for a second here to make an important point. A true, humble apology NEVER begins with "Sorry if..." Instead, we should say "I'm sorry that I..." When we use "sorry if", we're holding onto a sliver of hope that maybe whatever we did wasn't actually wrong. In this way, we are not admitting fault, and we're still protecting our own pride. Pride has no place in a truly humbled apology. Saying "if" suggests that we're not ready to take full responsibility for what we fully and clearly know that we have done. We have to fully own the mistake in a humble and remorseful acknowledgement of the wrong-doing for the other person to feel the respect we have for them. Saying "I'm sorry that I __" makes it clear that we know what we've done was wrong, that it probably hurt the other person, and shows that we will not do it again.

Have you ever had someone offer an apology to you by saying "I'm sorry you feel that way"? These words feel like side-stepping the crucial responsibility-taking part of the apology. This phrase also turns the responsibility for the feeling that was caused back onto the feel-er rather than the person who caused the feeling. It suggests "what you're feeling is really your fault, not mine, because I actually did nothing wrong." This is the most common non-apology I hear repeated in the therapy room. Saying an apology this way can be abusive. Don't do it.

Q: So, is there a formula that always works for apologizing? A: Well, yes and no. There are certain things we want to be sure to communicate in an apology, but they may not always bring us the response we want from the other person. Our apology may not be accepted or may not be fully accepted. Think of an apology as a gift we bring to someone's home after an offense. When we speak the apology, we're ringing their doorbell. The recipient can choose to open the door and accept the gift from us - OR - they can decide they need more time and decline to answer the door. That's OK. We must then respect their boundaries and leave the gift on their front door step for them if they ever choose to open the door and accept the apology. There are two important things to clarify here: 1) The word "gift" is used here only to illustrate the process, not to suggest that an apology is an undeserved or benevolent gift. It's not. 2) Don't ever take the apology back with you. If you do, it was never genuine. If you're gonna say it, it's best if you mean it.

How To Apologize:

An old friend of mine, the late Rev. Mike Chaille, had an easy way of summarizing how to make apologies. He offered a script that helps our hearts become right to make the apology: "I'm sorry that I ___. I was wrong. Please forgive me." [When appropriate:] I love you."

Each element of this apology model offers something very important. First, the action is identified. Then, the wrongness of the action is acknowledged and forgiveness is requested but never demanded. Lastly, and only when appropriate, love is affirmed.

Another common way to think about apologies is that they need to reflect "the condition of the heart". Apologies are generally delivered best with a humble and remorseful attitude. Remember that the other person can usually tell if you're really sorry, and the closer they are to you the better they know your expressions. So, if you're genuinely sorry for something you did, you can show it. BUT, if you're not quite sorry yet for your actions, you'd probably better check yourself to see if you're just looking to manipulate the other person with an off-the-cuff, insincere non-apology.

Now let's look at Will Smith, who was responsible for another high-profile incident that was also followed by an apology. Smith is a very popular ADHD'er who has fallen from grace over the past couple of years since he slapped a fellow comedian at The Oscars. After attempting to reach Chris Rock, learning that Rock wasn't ready to talk, and then apologizing yet again in a high-profile YouTube Video, a remorseful Will Smith said, "I've spent the last 3 months understanding the nuances and complexities of what happened in that moment... There's no part of me that feels that was the right way to act in that moment or the right way to handle feelings of disrespect or insults. Saying 'I'm sorry' really isn't even sufficient here."

Can we hear the difference here? Kelce's attitude was a bouncy, jovial, less affected, less humbled "Oopsies!" while Smith's seems more genuine. To be fair, Kelce's victim here was also reportedly far less bothered by the event, denying any offense publicly, while Smith's victim was justifiably and blazingly offended. Also, Smith had 90 days to sit with his feelings and unpack them. But Smith's apology and actions after the event felt too demanding. He seems to be demanding Rock's acceptance too much, which is probably why Rock did not accept the apology and then publicly blasted Smith in several stand-up comedy shows following the event. Here we see why it's so important to say the apology and then leave it on the recipient's doorstep and simply walk away. Remember, it is completely up to the other person to choose to accept your apology or not. If they choose not to, that's OK, and this choice is likely a sign that both of you would be better off taking a break from the relationship, at least for now. Leaving the apology on their doorstep respects their boundaries and also honors yours.

I hope this post has been informative and helpful. I specialize in working with creative professionals across Georgia who have Anxiety, ADHD, and/or High Functioning Autism. If you’d like to speak more about these or other types of issues, please give me a call at 770 615 6300. You can also schedule a session and learn more about my practice at I offer telehealth and in-person sessions. I am in-network with Aetna insurance and provide paperwork for filing out-of-network claims.

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