The Power of an Apology Part 3 – When to Apologize avatar Posted by Dr. Mike Brooks
Dec 18, 2013
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Mending fenceI can’t say that this is the best timing for the holiday season, but things just worked out such that I’m trying to finish my series on apologies.  So there you have it!

Now, on to the issue of when do we apologize. The obvious answer is, of course, when we are wrong. But there’s something more important than just turning this into a simple matter of right vs. wrong. It’s about our relationships with others. I’ve blogged previously about the importance of being effective over being right. I’m not saying we should be doormats or we shouldn’t voice our opinions, it’s just that we should avoid torpedoing a relationship to press our case for being “right” about an issue.

As I’ve discussed throughout numerous blogs, our happiness resides in relationships. So, we shouldn’t choose to be right over being effective since, ultimately, we shoot ourselves in the foot with regard to happiness when we get into intense arguments over matters. That’s because the person won’t want to have much to do with us, at least for a little while, if we have argued our position with too much “enthusiasm” while denigrating the other person’s position (e.g., “That’s an ignorant statement!”) or attacking that person themselves (e.g., “You are ignorant!”)

Mending the Fence
Thus, for a basic rule of thumb, we should apologize whenever we’ve harmed the relationship with the other person. Now, this is an aspect I really like about this: we don’t necessarily have to concede a position in order to apologize. For example, imagine that you and a friend got into a heated argument about…oh, let’s say…healthcare! Whoa! What a minefield that one is! For the sake of this example, let’s say you and your friend held diametrically opposed views. After the heated argument dies down, you realize that you said some things that you now regret (e.g., “You must not have any compassion to believe what you do. And you call yourself a Christian?!”). Importantly, you don’t have to agree with your friend’s point of view on healthcare in order to apologize. You can maintain your position and apologize for the things that you said that hurt the relationship.

Two Separate Issues
Some people conflate apologizing with agreeing with the other person’s position. This is a mistake though. There are two separate issues here. We have the right to our opinions and, certainly, some arguments are based purely on facts that are in dispute (e.g., who one the best actor Oscar in 1982?). We don’t have to change our positions in order to apologize. If we’ve harmed a relationship with our vociferous arguing and hurtful language, it’s time to apologize.  

With an apology, we let the other person know that our relationship with them is more important to us than being right. And this is a very powerful message to send to others. It helps to strengthen relationships which, in turn, increases their happiness and ours. 




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Dr. Brooks is a Licensed Psychologist and the Director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter). He provides therapy, consultation, and coaching services to adolescents and adults. His areas of specialization and professional interests include mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy,solution-oriented therapy, feedback informed treatment (FIT), positive psychology, positive computing, empirically-supported treatment, and existential issues.

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