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"If I Offended Anyone, I'm Sorry."


Is all that you can't say

Years gone by and still

Words don't come easily

Like sorry, like sorry" Tracy Chapman

Offering a sincere apology remains central to conflict resolution. It is the first step in attempting to repair a relationship after a dispute.

Sometimes, we misuse apologies as an automatic response to situations that do not warrant an apology. For example, apologizing for another person's actions and things outside one's control. We are even apologizing for how someone feels about a situation. There is little doubt an apology is a powerful conflict resolution technique but only when it is warranted.

Thought Experiment: Are we overusing apologies to avoid conflicts?

Conflicts are inevitable, even for those who prefer to avoid them at all costs. It is simply impossible to lead a conflict-free life. Consequently, in our interactions, we will have disagreements and differences of opinion on the many topics we discuss.

Even if we consider ourselves "lovers and not fighters." We are still taking a stance on what we believe is just. But, more often than not, "turning the other cheek" is not in the cards. Yet, despite our desire to remain calm, there will be disruptions to maintaining our tranquility.

When we experience these disruptions, our communication and behavior usually do not convey the most appropriate messages. Because our emotions and thoughts are expressed in frustration without consideration for the other person or persons' feelings.

In any case, an apology may be warranted to minimize the impact of a conflict. Especially when our behaviors were offensive to those involved in the dispute. We may ask, why is an apology warranted when expressing what we felt in the moment? Of course, we can speak our minds, but communicating our thoughts is very different from humiliating someone for the sake of it.

When we apologize, we acknowledge and take responsibility for our role in the conflict. Offering an apology when necessary is a sign of emotional maturity. Accepting responsibility for our position in the conflict has less to do with our intentions versus if the other person's interpretation of the incident is real or perceived. More importantly, it is not about who is right or wrong and who is less or more responsible for the conflict in the first place.

Mastering the basics of an apology

Issuing an apology is a personal choice. Likewise, accepting an apology is a personal choice. If and when you think an apology is warranted, some essential elements are necessary to deliver an effective and sincere apology.

  • Be mindful of not reauthoring the story to justify your response.

  • Waiting to see who apologizes first is likely counterproductive.

  • Endeavor to have a mutual understanding of the incident for which you apologize.

  • If you are the offender, take responsibility for your role in the conflict.

  • Recognize that your action resulted in embarrassment for the other person.

  • State the specific behavior for which you are apologizing.

  • Share with the other person what you plan to do differently in the future if a similar situation arises.

  • Consider the timing of the apology.

Making an apology to someone is not always an easy decision. How the apology is delivered may also have consequences for the person making the apology. For instance, if the decision to apologize has the potential for the person making the apology to be liable, then an apology may not be forthcoming. It may also mean the apology is delivered as vague and nonspecific, which could further upset the receiver of the apology. In other situations, there may not be an apology because neither party finds it necessary to restore their relationship.

Whatever the circumstances, the issuance of an apology is intriguing, and the person making the Mea Cupla has to decide if it is necessary. Please share your thoughts on whether you believe apologies are required.

Stay Naturally Curious


Erin A. O'Hara & Douglas Yarn, On Apology and Consilience, 77 Wash. L. Rev. 1121 (2002). Available at:

Frantz, C. M. & Bennigson, C. (2004). Better late than early: The influence of timing on apology effectiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, (2005), 201-207. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.07.007

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