(Ed note: I know it is tacky to edit after posting, but I couldn't let this one sit with the degree of editing required. So I'm editing.)
My mom and I discussed apologies as well as thanks. When I was a teen, we didn't categorize them clearly in steps, but just started the discussion. Sometime between college and marriage I figured out that there were stages of the process, which she (by then an ordained minister) thought was very useful. Granted, you can skip over my thoughts and go straight to the non-violent communication method (also quite useful, though doesn't specifically say 'I'm sorry' in the front).
The four stages of an apology are these:
- Apology: I'm sorry I ... (emphasis on I)
- Verification of issue: This is what I did, so you know I'm apologizing for the right thing, is this correct?
- Empathy/sympathy/understanding statement: I can see that it hurt/was wrong, your real need was X
- Forward path: My plan for not repeating it is ... Include problem-solving how to more effectively pursue the original goal here, not earlier.
This covers all the issues I've ever had with an apology, either coming to me, or being given.
Apology. Please do not apologize as follows: I'm sorry you feel bad. I'm sorry you got hurt. I'm sorry you're so sensitive. We can state here that it was an accident, but you'll notice that I kind of skip over what the intentions were. The emphasis is on how the other person feels. Discuss how to better express that intention later. Skip the defenses at this point. We really want to jump straight to defense of ourselves at this point because apologizing is a vulnerable state. If they shoot back 'well you SHOULD be sorry!' just start again, 'yes, you're right, I'm sorry.' CAVEAT: Anyone who is very good with condition statements that stay on the "I" side of the line ("I needed, and therefore I wasn't paying attention to X", for example) can insert one here. NVC works in this spot. Proceed with caution on that, because it can read as "I'm sorry, BUT my problems are bigger than yours."
Verification. I have had so many people apologize for the wrong part of the problem. It's infuriating to be angry because I feel disrespected, and have the other person apologize for something like not noticing that I was angry. Wrong point in the process, ignoring the cause, or even misreading the cause at the right point in the process. I've also done it, but the four-stage thing helps prevent it from being a bigger issue. This lets them get another 'RIGHT' in - it may still be a stinging, angry, or defended agreement at this point, but it will start to register that you do get it, and that things can start moving in a better direction.
Empathy/sympathy/understanding. Again, NVC works here. You needed. You wanted. Statements that are non-critical, that make you and I the same, that draw on human needs (respect, feeling successful, feeling loved, etc.). This is where we either erase the line between us, or step over to the same side of the line, with the event/error on the other side of it. The message is that we all need these things (though generally, it isn't necessary to say 'just like everyone does' - might give the wrong message). SUPER IMPORTANT to not indicate a need that you think is trivial. 'You needed to go shopping' is trivial, unless it is phrased as: 'You needed a break' or 'You needed to feel prepared for the party' or 'you needed to participate in the choice of gifts' or 'you needed to feel the gratitude for the gift was earned.'
PAUSE. Give them time to absorb this. There's often a beginning of actual interplay here. Physical contact may spontaneously be offered, or the body language will soften. DO NOT DIVE IN. This is not the time to try to sneak in your own need for reconnecting by overstepping the boundary. Eye contact, deep breath, cue from them whether to relax, possibly you'll hear back some 'yeah, I'm sorry, too' at this point, but it depends on what happened.
Forward path. In the future, when I'm feeling X because I need Y, and you're feeling Z because you need Q, would it work if I ... That is, problem solve. We can make clear what ideas we have for avoiding that same mistake, or for catching it sooner. We both have a problem to solve here, can we solve it together? ALSO: Include how to make it better, make amends, ease the pain. Ask, don't tell. It's problem solving, so it's important to keep it from being another opportunity to blunder through and cause further injury. If we have an idea, it is time to propose it, instead of stating it. More, 'I'd like to make this better, can I buy you a new one?' rather than just stating, 'I'll buy you a new one' (which if they really just want to repair the old one, or just want the time to grieve the loss and don't really want a new one, will just cause more hurt).
How it sounds:
Me: Miss M, I'm sorry I stepped on you. That hurt.
Miss M: You didn't LOOK. (correction for the right thing to apologize for)
Me: You're right. I wasn't looking. I'm sorry I stepped on you, I wasn't looking where I was going.
Miss M: grump
Me: You needed me to notice you were there. You needed to be important and visible and noticed. Your feelings were hurt when I didn't pay attention.
Miss M: Yes!
Me: I understand. I will do my best to pay attention and notice you. That way I won't run into you or step on you. How can I make it better? Do you want a hug? Would that help you feel better?
Miss M: (shakes head no. pause. reaches out for hug.)
When we do that, we both feel better.
More coming on this topic ...