The classic 1970 movie “Love Story” is famous for the line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." The older and wiser I get, the more I realize what a poisonous recipe is contained within that statement. It’s much more valuable to learn that love means knowing how to apologize in a way that can mend or restore a relationship.
My favorite tool in helping people learn how to offer contrition is the book, “The Five Languages of Apology” by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Why is learning to apologize effectively important? Without an apology after a conflict, anger can build up and push us to demand justice. The poison builds, and if we feel we are wronged and didn’t receive justice, it can elevate to a desire for revenge. Without an apology, any relationship can be seriously eroded or permanently broken.
In the workplace, teaching your employees how to apologize can save a customer relationship or reduce employee turnover. In family dynamics, in romantic relationships, or in building lasting friendships, learning how to apologize can salvage or enhance your interactions and avoid family feuds.
Have you ever had someone apologize to you, and for some reason it fell short of feeling sincere or healing to you? It may be that they didn’t speak your language.
Here’s a short quiz adapted from Chapman’s book that can help you determine your own apology language.
Which of the five choices below would most likely be well-received if a person who has wronged you apologizes to you?
- I am able to accept an apology from someone who expresses regret simply by saying, "I'm sorry."
- When I am offered an apology, I long to hear the words "I was wrong" or “it was my fault”.
- I find an apology most sincere when the person who has wronged me takes action to make it right.
- I find an apology most sincere when followed by a promise to change, with the offending person saying, "I'll try not to do that again."
- I find an apology most sincere when the other party places great importance on asking for my forgiveness.
A brief summary of the five apology languages follows. Now that you’ve chosen the type of apology that most relates to you, you can find out what that means about your apology language. Possibly some of these might also bring family, friends or co-workers to mind.
Expressing Regret If you checked the first option, Expressing Regret is your primary apology language. What you want to hear in an apology is an immediate expression of sorrow for causing you pain. A simple and sincere, “I'm sorry” goes a long way.
Accepting Responsibility The second choice means Accepting Responsibility is your primary apology language. What you look for in an apology is maturity. You most want to hear the offending party say, “I was wrong. It was my fault and I take responsibility for my actions.” This is hard for some people because they perceive accepting the “fault” or “blame” as weakness on their part.
Making Restitution If the third option feels more appropriate, then Making Restitution is your primary apology language. You find it easiest to forgive when action is taken to compensate for the wrong done to you. You listen not only to admission of fault, but also for the answer to the question, “What can I do to make this right?”
Genuinely Repenting Closely relating to the fourth question indicates Genuinely Repenting is your primary apology language. You are most able to forgive someone who offends you when they are willing to change in order to avoid hurting you again. “I’m sorry AND here’s my plan to make sure it won’t happen again.”
Requesting Forgiveness and Restoration If you chose the last option, then Requesting Forgiveness is your primary apology language. You want to know that the offending person highly values your relationship and sincerely desires restoration. Forgiving them doesn’t say that they were right in what they said or did, but that you make the choice to go forward with the relationship.
You can see how learning these five ways to apologize can be masterful in the customer service arena. Orders get screwed up. Accidents happen. Here’s an example: In a restaurant, a server spills iced tea all over a customer. An apology that would cover all languages might go like this: “I am so sorry. That was totally my fault for being in such a hurry in this narrow aisle. I’ll get the manager to take care of your ticket. And may I get you one of our company T-shirts to wear while I have your clothes cleaned? This afternoon, I’m going to move these tables farther apart so we can ensure this doesn’t happen again. We value your business so much. Will you please forgive me?”
Now, that’s how to apologize. The server has no idea whether the customer’s apology language includes the need to hear an offer of restitution or a simple “I’m sorry”, but by learning to include all five elements in his apology, the server has diffused a volatile situation and possibly made a customer for life. Does this work in customer service over the phone as well? Absolutely.
An apology offered pro-actively is much more powerful than an apology after the customer or friend is angry and demands restitution or acknowledgment. Always remember, it is the service we are not obligated to give that people value most.
Most people respond positively to a well-done apology, but if they are slow to accept your apology, give it time. This is often a reflection of past hurtful experiences and they may require time to observe behavior that will convince them of your sincerity.
One last word of advice. Never include a ‘but’ after an apology. “I’m sorry, but if you had gotten in your order in on time …” or “I’m sorry, but you know how you push my buttons when you …” When you apologize in that manner, you’re putting an apology on the table and snatching it right back.
While I adapt Chapman and Thomas’ book for business coaching, it works fabulously in personal relationships. My husband’s apology language is Expressing Regret, just saying “I’m sorry.” In my primary apology language, I’m always waiting to hear a plan for how this situation will not occur again. I don’t like repeat offenders. Once we acknowledged our different definition of effective apologies, it improved how we resolve our conflicts.
An apology alone cannot restore a relationship, either in business or in your personal life. But it can definitely knock down barriers to make the road smoother.
A young, handsome Ryan O’Neal spoke the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” line in “Love Story.” In his later comedy “What’s Up, Doc?”, co-star Barbra Streisand says to O’Neal’s character, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” He deadpans, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
I couldn’t agree more.
by Coco Duckworth
Coco, owner of Encourage Consulting, provides business encouragement through executive coaching, seminars and keynote speaking. Coco is the chair of the WTAMU Enterprise Center advisory board, president of The 100 Club of the Texas Panhandle, and recent recipient of the Women in Leadership Award from Amarillo Business Women. She and her husband, Rod, a partner in DFB Insurance Group, have two grown sons with wonderful spouses, and four grandsons. Find Coco on Facebook or email her at email@example.com.