Have you ever been in an uncomfortable situation of saying the wrong thing? Maybe you asked a friend how their job is going who was just recently fired. Maybe you asked a family member about a relationship that just ended. Even though you apologized for the honest mistake, you can still tell they are hurting. These situations are a common, yet difficult, part of being social creatures. What make these situations different than, say, accidentally shutting the door on someone’s finger, is that these wounds are internal.
Dr. Cole is the clinical director of The Gottman Institute; an organization that brings research-based guidance to couples and trains therapists to be more effective as relationship counselors. He regularly sees couples who struggle with miscommunication. The interesting part is that successful couples actually say the wrong thing just as often as unsuccessful couples do (Goldfarb, 2019). The difference is that successful couples know how to repair hurt feelings when they’ve caused them. This idea can be applied not just to romantic partners, but also to friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc. Goldfarb (2019) offers some tips on how to bounce back from verbal slip-ups.
Before you apologize:
- Assess the harm: You might want to just apologize for one comment, but to the other person, this might be part of a larger pattern of thoughtlessness on your part. They might even be angrier than you thought. If you aren’t sure about what you said was hurtful, it might be beneficial to reach out and say, “It would help make this right if you could explain what I did that harmed you.” Instead of framing it as, “Tell me why you’re mad,” but ask, “What did I do?”
- Don’t “catastrophize”: People who are prone to guilty thoughts tend to be harder on themselves. Instead of having the narrative of “I’m a terrible person,” try to reframe it into something more realistic, supportive, and helpful, such as, “I’m feeling ashamed, but I can make this better. Everyone makes mistakes.”
- Don’t let it fester: People are often tempted to put things on the back burner. The issue with that is not only will you spend time worrying about it, but the longer things go unsaid, the more awkward it will be. Try to make amends as soon as possible.
During the apology:
- Take responsibility: Avoid the urge to get defensive and make excuses. Instead, studies show that labeling your feelings can help manage anxiety and depression. Saying things like, “I’m ashamed I said that,” might alleviate some of your anguish over the situation. That being said, make sure to not turn yourself into the victim.
- Validate their pain: What you intended to say can be irrelevant in a conversation centered on the negative impact of your words, so try not to use this time to clarify your intent. It’s also not helpful to argue over whose version of the events is correct due to the fact that memory isn’t a digital recording; it’s an emotional encoding of an event.
- Be genuine: Make sure your apology comes from the heart. Body language, facial signals, and vocal tone all become lost in written communication, which makes email and text messages not the ideal way to approach sensitive topics like an apology. It is best to do it face-to-face if possible.
- Explain how it won’t happen again: It is helpful to share what the situation taught you to reassure the person that you have learned from your mistake.
After the apology:
- Reset: It can be very important to have an uneventful interaction after a slip-up in case the other person is wondering what the relationship will look like moving forward. This will help to recalibrate the relationship and reassure them that all is well.
- Let it go: All this being said, if after giving it your best effort the other person still isn’t able to move past the event, disengage. You can offer a sincere apology and own up to things, but you cannot make somebody accept it.
Goldfarb, A. (2019, August 18). What to Do When You’ve Said the Wrong Thing. Retrieved
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