How to Apologize: Advice from a Trauma-Informed Expert
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
If you’re familiar with the trauma-informed space, you know that we often talk about the experience of feeling seen, heard, and valued. We talk about creating space at the table for everyone, practicing vulnerability to strengthen relationships, and holding ourselves accountable when we make mistakes.
These are all great topics to discuss, but it can prove challenging to distill these larger ideas into practice. But, when we talk about apologizing, we wrap all of these complex concepts up into a single practice.
It’s a common trauma-state response to want to avoid conflict. Conflict can feel dangerous. Some of us may have experiences where conflict was dangerous.
While avoiding conflict may have worked as a successful tool to stay safe in the past, this adaptive behavior does not serve us in our professional lives.
Repairing conflict creates stronger relationships, ensures better teamwork, and encourages more collaboration. And we cannot repair conflict by avoiding it.
You might think that you already know how to apologize—and that might be true. But this step-by-step guide to apologizing (with helpful templates) is a trauma-informed resource that we believe can benefit anyone.
Step 1: Create safety and put down your defenses
Sometimes, an apology will come in the heat of the moment. Other times, you might feel the need to seek someone out to give an apology after the fact. In either situation, the first step to apologizing is creating safety.
To create a safe environment, you need to make sure that you are not dysregulated. You need to bring down your defenses.
When giving an apology, defensiveness can show up in different ways. You might think, “I didn’t mean to hurt them,” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” Defensive statements serve to protect your ego, and they often come from a place of trauma.
However, they don’t serve your goal of repairing conflict. These statements can make the other person feel unsafe and unheard. Although your side of the story is important, an apology is about seeing someone else’s side of the story.
So, to create safety when giving an apology, there are a few things we can do:
Use a gentle, non-combative tone of voice when speaking.
Avoid aggressive body language, like slamming doors or pacing.
Ask for consent to give an apology or have a conversation about a specific topic.
We can also use certain words and phrases to establish safety. You might say:
“I just want to remind you that this situation isn’t a me-versus-you scenario. It’s an us-versus-the-problem situation, and I’m committed to working together with you to resolve this conflict.”
“We’re a team, and I see you as a friend. I don’t want this conflict to push us apart.”
“I’m here now because I care about you and how you feel.”
Why is creating safety the first step to giving an apology?
Some people might see this step as unnecessary. From a trauma-informed perspective, this step is non-negotiable. Why?
When we use a trauma-informed perspective, we operate with universal precaution. Universal precaution encompasses the idea that anyone can have trauma. Since anyone may have trauma, we must act as though everyone has trauma.
When we act as though everyone has trauma, it becomes clearer why establishing safety is essential to giving an apology.
If the receiver of the apology is stuck in trauma brain, they cannot properly listen, process, or understand. They may feel unsafe, threatened, or scared. Instead of being present, they will fight, flee, freeze, or appease.
Step 2: Validate feelings and experience
Once you’re sure that you’re in the right headspace to give an apology and you’ve established an atmosphere of safety, it’s time for step two: validation.
Emotional validation is the act of acknowledging and accepting a person’s thoughts, feelings, and inner experiences.
When we validate someone’s emotions, we are essentially saying, “It makes sense that you feel that way. Your emotions are valid.” We can use those words, but we can also phrase it in different ways:
“I understand why you feel this way.”
“If that happened to me, I’d feel that way, too.”
“Anyone would feel that way if that happened to them.”
“I see that you feel this way because…”
“When this happened, I know it made you feel…”
“It’s understandable why you would think that.”
“I can see how you would feel that way.”
“That must have been really difficult for you.”
When you validate, you don’t need to agree on the facts of what happened. The goal is to acknowledge that you see their side of things and communicate that you understand how they feel. This is a great place to practice empathy.
When we’re hurt, we often desire that the person who hurt us understands what it feels like. We want to feel seen, heard, and respected. When we’re validated, we receive all that and more. That’s why this stage of repairing conflict can be extremely healing.
Step 3: Apologize with specific details
It might come as a surprise that step three to apologizing is the apology itself.
Once you’ve established safety and validated the person's emotions, you’re ready to say sorry.
When apologizing, it’s important that you’re specific and genuine in your apology. This part is where you will hold yourself accountable (which, if you’re in trauma brain, is extremely difficult).
Try to avoid statements like “I’m sorry you feel” or “I’m sorry that happened” when you are at fault in a scenario (even if your intentions were good or it was an accident). Instead, seek to take accountability by saying, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way” or “I’m sorry I did that.”
You might also want to say:
“I made a mistake, and I’m owning that mistake.”
“It was wrong of me to do that.”
“When I said that, I wasn’t being considerate.”
“What I did was inappropriate.”
If you use these examples, be sure to add your own details. Make it clear that you understand how your actions or words have affected the other person. Saying sorry without knowing why you’re apologizing isn’t an apology.
How do I apologize if I’m not sorry?
It’s possible that you don’t feel any remorse for what you did. The truth is, you might not be in the wrong at all. You don’t need to feel any shame or guilt. But you can still give a genuine apology.
Consider this scenario. Your organization has certain systems and processes in place. You do your job a certain way, as you always have. A new hire begins working with you. They are unaware of how the current team normally functions to get a task done. They have an issue with how you do something.
Who’s in the wrong here? No one, really.
Does that make the new hire’s feelings any less valid? No.
It is possible for there to be no blame or fault in a situation that calls for an apology.
It is both possible and common that our actions cause injury to others even when those actions are not necessarily wrong.
So, if you’re not sorry, but you want to give an apology, consider what you can apologize for. In the situation with the new hire, you might say:
“I didn’t know how my actions would affect you. Because of that unawareness, I offended you, and I’m sorry for that.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t communicate better regarding this project. I wasn’t sensitive to the fact that you’re new to the team and might need some more guidance than our other colleagues.”
Step 4: Reassure and re-establish safety
Once the apology is delivered, the apology still isn’t over. Next, you’ll want to re-establish safety and reassure the person of whatever they might feel insecure about.
In a professional setting, reassurance might look like this: