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5 Situations Where You Should Always Apologize

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Let’s be honest: No one ever really likes apologizing. This is especially true when we feel wronged ourselves or caught in a power struggle.

But apologies are essential if our personal and professional relationships are to survive. “Owning your part in a conflict is not only necessary to relationships, it’s also important to your well-being,” says Everett Worthington, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who has done extensive research on forgiveness. And, he adds, it’s always better to err on the side of apologizing too much rather than hoping the problem will just go away by itself. Are there times when saying “I’m sorry” is a must? You bet! Here are five of them.
  • Reason #1: Your wrongdoing is flagrant
    Example: At dinner last Thanksgiving, you drank a little too much and made inappropriate comments at the table. Why this is apology-worthy: When you are the obvious cause of a social malfunction, you need to own it to those offended by your behavior. You’ll make things much worse if you act like nothing happened. What to say: First, you need to admit to yourself that the behavior was not okay. Then call the others who were in attendance and tell them you recognize that your behavior was inappropriate and offer your sincere regrets for single-handedly messing up and making others uncomfortable. It’s especially important to call the host and hostess. Don’t say: “I drink because family dinners make me anxious. My bad.” Blaming it on something that seems beyond your control is not a true apology.
  • Reason #2: Your spouse is always the one apologizing
    Example: You and your spouse or partner fight frequently about money, but he’s usually the one to patch things up. Why this is apology-worthy: If balance is essential to good relationships, this is clearly a sign of imbalance. By rarely initiating an apology, you’re implying you’re always the one in the right no matter what. Maybe this is good for your ego, but it’s bad for the relationship. Have this happen enough and your spouse may ultimately find the relationship too costly, and any subsequent apologies will be too little, too late. What to say: Tell your spouse that you are responsible for your part in the conflict, and be specific about your role and what you’ve done wrong. Talk to him or her as soon after the misunderstanding as possible. Don’t say: “I guess it’s my turn to say, ’Sorry,’ so, ‘Sorry!’” This is not genuine, and won’t help you any.
  • Reason #3: You embarrass or ridicule someone
    Example: You correct a friend or colleague publicly and then keep harping on their mistake. Why this is apology-worthy: Embarrassing someone is nothing short of eroding their self-esteem. Even if it’s inadvertent, you’ll know you’ve crossed acceptable boundaries when they wince, shrink back, or become quieter. You then have an obligation to repair the damage. What to say: Admit that you have made the other person feel belittled and that you feel bad for doing so. Ask what you can do to make amends. Don’t say: “You know I was just kidding. I didn’t mean anything by it.” This does nothing to mend the relationship—you need to take responsibility.
  • Reason #4: Lying (beyond empathetic white lies)
    Example: You tell your spouse you paid the mortgage when, in fact, you haven’t done it yet. (Procrastination? Short on money? It doesn’t matter.) Why this is apology worthy: Talk about a relationship buster. Lies, unlike other transgressions, have an added layer of nastiness. Besides doing something you should or shouldn’t have done, you use a lie to cover it up. The wrongdoing will ultimately be superseded by the falsehood—creating a major erosion of trust in your relationship. What to say: Tell your spouse that you have erred in two ways—by not doing the action and by lying. Remedy the first wrongdoing and express regret for lying, acknowledging that it was a poor way to handle the situation. Don’t say: “I was just trying to protect you.” No, you were just trying to protect yourself.
  • Reason #5: You don't keep your word
    Example: You promise to take the grandkids to the movies, but the day of, you cancel, even though there’s no really good reason. Why this is apology-worthy: Sure, things come up, but, in general, part of the social contract with others is that we’ll keep our word, and that we can be counted on to do what we said we’d do. Breaking your word is another trust-buster. It’s a big deal even when you don’t think so. What to say: That you have been disrespectful and inconsiderate and that in the future, your word is gold. (Then prove it!) Don’t say: “It’s actually better we didn’t go to the movies on Monday because I’ve since heard the film was terrible.” Or some other justification for bailing. Nothing justifies breaking your word.

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