Reflect Back Before You Say Sorry – Tips for Improving Your Apologies

If you say you’re sorry before truly understanding how the offended party feels, have you really apologized?

That question may not be quite as metaphysical as the classic, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” but it’s certainly worth considering if you’re serious about rebuilding trust in relationships.

I remember countless situations when my two sons were young kids and they’d get into squabbles with each other. After refereeing their dispute and performing my fatherly duty to declare one or both of them at fault, we’d inevitably get to the point where I’d tell one of them to apologize to the other. You probably know how the rest of the story unfolds, right? After several declarations of innocence and blaming the other person, one of them would grudgingly utter a terse, resentful, and perfunctory “sorry.” Neither of them were overly concerned with understanding how the other felt; they just wanted to placate dad and get on with their business. That strategy may fly when you’re six years-old, but it doesn’t work as an adult in the workplace.

Delivering an effective apology is one of three key steps in rebuilding trust. However, apologizing isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface. There are key success factors of effective apologies, one of which is reflecting back the other person’s feelings.

Why is reflecting back feelings important and how do you do it?

  • Reflecting back feelings is important because it allows you to understand how the other person is feeling. It also allows the offended party the opportunity to process, share, and release the feelings he/she has been holding on to, which is important for moving beyond the hurt of the situation.
  • When you apologize, give the other person time to speak and share their feelings. The apology is as much about them—their pain, emotion, state of mind—as it is about your behavior. Don’t make the apology all about you.
  • As you listen to the other person share his/her feelings, don’t rebut, argue, or defend yourself. The purpose of reflecting back feelings is to show the other person you understand how he/she feels. It’s not to debate or argue points of facts.
  • Reflect back feelings by using statements like, “I heard what you said,” and “I understand why you feel that way.” Using statements like “Tell me more about that,” or “Help me understand what you mean by…” will open up the conversation and allow the other person to share in an environment of safety.

So I’ll take a shot at answering the metaphysical question: If you say you’re sorry before truly understanding how the offended party feels, have you really apologized?

My position is no, you haven’t fully apologized if you don’t understand how the other party feels. Admitting your harmful behavior is half of the apology. You can take it all the way home by understanding, acknowledging, and addressing how your behavior made the other person feel. Following this approach will increase the effectiveness of your apologies and lead to higher trust in your relationships.

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