Relational Apologies

by | Nov 14, 2017 | Nonviolent Communication

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Have you ever you said “I’m sorry” to someone just to get them to stop being upset with you?

From the time we are little, we are often taught to “say you’re sorry” to others, but what does this really mean?

Let’s start with a hilarious clip, in which Joey and Ross illustrate beautifully how communication and apologies can go awry.


I can so relate.

Although we try to make things better, we inadvertently just make them worse.

Many of us have learned since childhood that you need to say “sorry” in order to be “forgiven” for doing something “wrong.” There need be no sincerity in it, no real feeling in it, and this disconnection from our hearts renders it an empty cultural ritual.

Marshall Rosenberg used to say that apologies are cheap.

Like this, apologies become a way of defending and disconnecting from one another, instead of a way to foster healing and repair.

Relational apologies, on the other hand, come from the heart, and our hearts don’t open when they are constricted with fear and shame. When we ground our apologies in the experience of open-hearted regret, by softeninginto our own and others’ feelings and needs, we can become less defensive.

This kind of self-reflective remorse can take us more deeply into ourselves and allows our hearts to open. Shame, in contrast, shuts us down into disconnect from ourselves and others.

Requesting an Apology:

The next time you notice the impulse to tell someone they “should be sorry” or “need to apologize” to you, here are some ideas about what underlying needs might be up for you … What do you really want?

1. Perhaps … You want to know that the other person cares about you and the (often unintended) impact that their words or behaviors have had on you. You want the experience of them caring about the impact they had on you.

2. Perhaps … You want to trust that your hurt and pain matter to them, that they let your experience in enough to be motivated to change so that things can work better for both of you.

3. Perhaps … You want your relationship with them to be grounded in learning, growth, discovery and mutual care – not on perpetuating cycles of shaming or blaming.

4. Perhaps … You want to trust that as you both move forward together, that you are equally motivated to reduce harm and hurt, and are taking steps to increase safety, care and connection with each other.

When we are aware of what we are actually going to bat for, we can align our words and actions with our hearts’ deeper longings.

Relational apologies lead to greater healing and connection. They rely on mourning, regret, remorse and learning. They increase hope and intimacy.

Offering an Apology:

So, the next time you want to apologize for something, here are a few steps that might lead to richer, more open-hearted expression:

1. Identify in clear, neutral data what you said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do.

For example, “When I raised my voice yesterday while we were talking, and then talked over you as you were trying to talk …”

2. Acknowledge, name and connect with the impact it had on this other person. Provide empathy for how you imagine this may have impacted the other person.

For example, “I am imagining that must have felt really frustrating and painful for you at a time when you were wanting to be heard and understood more deeply … I can also imagine you’d like to be treated with more care, tenderness and respect than I was demonstrating yesterday …”

3. Reveal the impact your own actions had on you: State the ways in which your behavior also did not meet your own needs.

For example, “When I remember myself doing this, I also feel sad and disappointed because it doesn’t meet my needs for self-respect, integrity or connection with you in the way that I am wanting …”

4. Offer a commitment to doing something differently; reveal insights you’ve gained.

For example, “I realize that when I get activated that I need some space and time to calm down and figure out what is actually getting activated in me. Instead of yelling and interrupting you in the future, how about I ask for a 5 minute time out to help me de-escalate so that I can stay kind and engaged in a way that hopefully works better for us both?”

5. Be open to feedback, tweaking and co-creation of a different strategy if the other person doesn’t like your first offering or idea. Stay in dialogue until you find something that you both can settle into.

And finally, to close, here is a small excerpt from my online Building Better Relationships Course in which I talk a little further about apologies and saying sorry:



  1. Karen Greer

    I don’t recall hearing “I’m sorry” when I was growing up in my family! “Never” Even though I grew up in the christian tradition it didn’t get into my family of origin.And it wasn’t until the last couple of years of my Mom’s life that she said “I’m Sorry” to me.
    Others in my family didn’t use the phrase much either.
    “I’m sorry” was a first step in the right direction in my family and yet I hear what you are saying about a sincere approach to mending a situation – how to go deeper in the reconciliation process. Thanks for all the ways that you and NVC have impacted my life.
    Have a great Thanksgiving! I won’t be at group tomorrow.

  2. Karen Greer

    Thanks for getting me back to the “I’m sorry” blog. I had skipped over it last week and theopportunity to reflect on it was helpful. The “Friends” excerpt was a great way to introduce
    how we really don’t know how to reconcile.


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