Heartfelt apologies can be tough; admitting you were wrong requires introspection, humbling yourself, being vulnerable. But the gracelessness of the person accepting the apology too often exacerbates an already uncomfortable situation.
If you’re in an argument with someone and they admit to being wrong, don’t belittle or rub their nose in it. This can cause people to dig into false beliefs out of misplaced pride or the hope of saving face. It takes courage to admit when you’re wrong and shouldn’t be looked down upon.
Don’t be a sore winner! If someone has admitted they’re wrong, that’s a moment to reward them. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Here are some ideas for when and how to accept apologies so that the conflict is resolved in a healthy way.
Decide if you really accept their apology
There are many degrees to disagreements and wrongdoing. Some offences really can’t be smoothed over with an apology — maybe this person has been doing the same thing over and over for a long time and hasn’t changed their behaviour.
Maybe what they did this time was so bad it changed how you feel about them forever. Maybe the apology is bad, and the apologiser isn’t taking full responsibility for their actions.
If you really can’t accept an apology, don’t pretend to while continuing to simmer with resentment. There are some situations where it can be hard or impossible to reject an apology—for instance, in a workplace scenario.
But in your personal life, you are under no obligation to accept a lukewarm “I’m sorry.” Apologies are a step towards repairing a relationship. If it’s not a relationship you want, let it go.
Understand your own vulnerability
Apologies usually occur in the wake tumultuous feelings; you got heated, they got heated. Even if I’m in the right, I find I often feel embarrassed when it’s time to make up.
It’s partly because I was showing how much I cared about something during the conflict. It’s easy to feel vulnerable when we’re emotional, and feeling vulnerable can make us lash out further, even in response to someone’s efforts to make things right.
We can get caught up in being self-righteousness, a powerful feeling: you’re in the right! You may not want to let go of that position.
If you find yourself reacting negatively to a sincere apology, acknowledge to yourself the ways it makes you feel vulnerable. That might help you understand if you’re still mad at the other person, or just afraid of your feelings.
Give yourself time
If you’re really upset about something, saying “No big deal!” minimises your feelings, feelings that are likely to pop up again at some later point.
If you need time after an apology, you can say so. For example, “Thank you for apologising, but I need some time and space.”
Let yourself cool down — I think it’s helpful to ask if you can text or call later. That way, you don’t have to make some grand gesture to indicate you’re ready to reconnect. You can just reach out and say hello and take it from there.
Generally, if people are making a good faith effort to repair a wrong, they’ll understand and back off. If not, well, go back to my first point about whether or not this is a relationship you want to fix.
What else you can say
“I accept your apology,” is a very formal way of responding to an apology, but it’s what we’re trained to say.
“It’s ok,” is also a pretty common (more casual) response, but as we’ve discussed, sometimes it’s not OK. Here are some ideas for what you might say when you want to accept someone’s apology without being disingenuous about how you feel.
Some might be more appropriate for friends and family and others for work scenarios:
Thank you for saying that. I was upset about ___, and I’m glad you understand that. Let’s move on.
I appreciate your apology. I’m still mad, but I won’t be eventually.
I understand, everyone makes mistakes.
Share your own responses in the comments.
Admit your part in the argument
At times, only one person is completely and totally wrong. More often, two people have a conflict where they both kind of act like jerks, but one is a bit more of a jerk than the other.
You can take responsibility for your bad behaviour in a fight without making the whole altercation your fault. Tell the apologiser, “Thanks for apologising. I wish you hadn’t done ___, it’s true, but I also wish I hadn’t done ___ .”
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