My Apology Is Not Accepted: Now what?

How do I feel when my apology isn’t accepted?

Years ago, in a conversation with a good friend, I inadvertently said something that obviously upset them and the conversation ended abruptly. Mystified, I phoned back on several occasions and started to apologise, however, it was obvious that talking on the phone wasn’t an option.

Upset, I thought should I just leave it?  No, we had been friends for years. We lived at a distance and a visit was not possible, so I wrote, apologizing.

Again, no response. I felt a bit aggrieved–I wasn’t even sure what I’d said as there was nothing I could think of that would be so wounding. Surely, I’d done my part! Isn’t an apology meant to fix things, and how fair is that…As a mediator and coach who helps people rebuild relationships I felt sad and ashamed that I couldn’t “fix” my own issues.

I wondered at how quickly a long lasting relationship could be damaged. It’s like a rope that seems strong, but without care, becomes tangled and frayed. Then a sudden tension creates a break.

Yet although, I was puzzled and hurt, I wanted to restore connection with my friend. So, I started researching what to do when an apology isn’t accepted.

When an Apology Is Not Accepted

When we take things personally, we don’t see the situation clearly. We only have our own perspective which is coloured by our experiences and our judgements.  As long as we are hurting and upset, we will act from our pain. So, maybe it was how and the tone. “I’m sorry if you found my comment upsetting” could be heard as “you are too sensitive” or “I’m not sorry for my comment, just that you seemed to take exception to it, so it’s really your fault”.  Here are some steps to work through…

Step 1 Self Understanding

So the first step is to stop and figure out what is going on in my head.

  • What actually happened?
  • What have I decided that means?
  • Is there anything else it could be?
  • What feelings arise? Am I denying my feelings?

It’s helpful to acknowledge our own feelings rather than ignore them. Just as a child tugs at a parent until heard, our feelings will keep arising until we recognise them. Sometimes we need to give ourselves some compassion or time before we can look at things objectively. Feelings and judgements are indications of our needs. So if we are feeling hurt, we might need compassion from ourselves before we can think straight.

“I’ve discovered that when I’ve allowed myself to feel what I feel, I become more patient with myself and more forgiving.”

Keep in mind what is important to you, the other person and understand the impact on them, even if it seems trivial to you. It’s like sunburn. You touch me lightly as a gesture of concern, not knowing I’m badly sunburned. To me, that touch is agony and I may lash out. You feel hurt and rejected. Yet, when you realise that I am sunburned, you understand that it is not a rejection but an expression of pain. So instead of a defensive “I only touched you!” a genuine apology is easier. Here’s a helpful and entertaining TED talk on how not to take things personally.

Step 2 Decide Whether to try again

So is it worth trying again to apologise? Consider some of the following questions.

  •  What is most important to me? Is it the relationship, principles or end result?
  • What will happen if I leave it? How likely is that?
  • What might happen if I try again?
  • What have I done/doing that gets in the way?
  • What else can I do that shows I’m sorry?

More on this topic 

If we decide to try again, we need to consider doing things differently as our communication hasn’t had the desired result. In my case, I thought about what might not have been clear in my previous attempts and how I could rebuild trust.

Step 3: Key ingredients of an apology

It’s hard to research apologies, as researchers would have to inflict a serious hurt on people to truly research the effectiveness of apologies. This would be violating the ethics code of academic research. However,  Yohsuke Ohtsubo, a psychologist at Kobe University has spent over ten years studying apologies around the world, and late last year published  a paper with crucial how-to instructions. These are reflected in Crucial Conversations, a study on how to talk when stakes are high and emotions engaged. In short,

  • Say Sorry for the impact on them. We take responsibility for what we have done and show regret. Be genuine. Don’t weasel out of saying sorry and showing regret. Do NOT say “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” — there’s no if about it!
  • Acknowledge the impact and hurt the other person feels. Accept that they have a right to feel this way. Do NOT say “I’m sorry you feel that way”–this implies that you aren’t sorry you hurt them, just that they took offence at it. Do NOT try and justify or explain your actions at this stage.
  • Ask what we can do to repair the damage or ease the pain. Offer what we can to put things right. The gift/compensation needs to be bigger than the wound and given without strings attached.

    “It wasn’t generosity if it was freighted with expectation.” Joseph Grenny

  • Talk about what we will do in future to avoid the same thing happening.
  • Finally, acknowledge the possibility that this apology is not accepted, and figure out how we want to handle that.

These steps are also helpful in managing complaints

Step 4: Apologise

The more timely an apology, the more acceptable it is. The more trust that exists between the people, the sooner relationships can be rebuilt. And remember to follow through.

“You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it.” Doug Conant

So what happened with me? I apologised again, following the steps and also sent a gift. I acknowledged in my second letter that my friend may not want to contact me, although I very much hoped they would. If and when they did, I wanted to explore with them how I could avoid hurting them. We have rebuilt the relationship, and I value it all the more for nearly losing it.