Understanding Beats an Apology

Posted on September 12, 2013


When you play poker, it is important to know which hand is higher.  If bridge or pinochle is your game, you need to know what suit is trump.  In my last post, I discussed the difference between an apology and an explanation.  My assertion was that those two things were mutually exclusive and that it was important to apologize rather than explain when your partner is feeling hurt.  Now I am going to sound like I am contradicting myself when I tell you that an apology is largely ineffective without communicating understanding.

Where an explanation is a defensive position, a reflexive apology has the potential to also undermine connection.  When my kids were little, like so many parents, we tried to teach our children to apologize when appropriate.  Sometimes the apology was a “sorry” offered in an angry resentful tone.[1]  An apology loses some of its impact if it really doesn’t sound like you are sorry.  Even if you sound sincere with the apology, it still lacks much healing power without understanding.  If your partner does not first feel understood, the apology may feel hollow and dismissive.  In relationship, we all long to be known and understood.  If the apology is not accompanied by understanding, it is missing a vital component to heal an emotional wound.

What does it look like to communicate understanding?  First, let me help you with what not to do.  Avoid the words, “I understand.”  This is a surefire way to have your partner tell you that you don’t understand.  The way you communicate that you understand is by reflecting what your partner is feeling.  This is what therapists do all the time in session.  We take our cue from the feeling.  In a relationship, reflecting the feeling might sound like this.  “When I said x, you really felt hurt.”  If you pick the wrong feeling, it is okay.  Your partner will correct you.  This is an area where you get big points for effort.

John Gottman is one of the leading researchers on the dynamics of couple interactions.  Over the last 30 years, he has studied what is different between the couples with successful marriages and those marriages that failed.[2]  Gottman speaks to what separates the “masters of relationship” from the “disasters.”  One of the things that separates the masters from the disasters is this ability to seek to understand.  Gottman remarked that when one partner brings a complaint to the other, the masters will respond, “That’s interesting; tell me more about that.”  The words are somewhat facetious, but the message is spot on.  The idea is to seek to understand your partner’s experience.  Once I understand why you are upset (and you know that I understand), the apology has much greater healing power.

The question here is “what are you sorry for?”[3]  Unless you communicate your understanding of your partner’s feelings, the apology may not adequately answer that question.  Seek not only to understand, but to have your partner feel understood.  Then the apology has great power to transform the relationship.  In the final analysis, apologies are important.  We need to be able to apologize.  But the fuel that powers the apology is understanding.

[1] If this were a video blog I could give you the full effect of that “sorry.”  In hindsight it is rather comical.

[2] Go look at the post on the 4 horsemen for more on this.

[3] I know “For what are you sorry?” is better grammar, but who talks like that?