x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The expert's guide to saying sorry

An effective apology can sometimes be the best thing to repair relationships and smooth ruffled feathers.

Picture the scene: a woman comes home to find out that her husband has eaten the pie she baked for her book club that evening, she confronts him and he begins to justify himself - he was hungry, she hadn't prepared him any lunch, she didn't say he shouldn't eat it. Frustrated, she responds in anger and an argument breaks out.

Now imagine he had said: "I'm so sorry honey, I hadn't realised you made it especially for your book club. Can I go to the shops and buy you a replacement?"

There would be no argument. The pie would be replaced and life would go on. Most importantly, the relationship between the woman and her husband would not be damaged. All thanks to a simple but effective apology.

The problem is that - as the song goes - sorry seems to be the hardest word.

"It's hard to apologise, in part, because it threatens our sense of self," says the psychotherapist Laurence Moriette of Dubai Therapy.

"For example, I think of myself as caring and considerate but sometimes appearing to be cold. If someone has been upset by my perceived coldness, it would be quite easy for me to apologise. I know this to be part of me, it has expressed itself before.

"If, on the other hand, someone expressed having been hurt by some total lack of care and consideration on my part, it may be a lot more difficult for me to apologise because I really think of myself as a caring person. Threatened, I would look for excuses, blame the planets or immediate circumstances."

Even if we do grit our teeth and mutter the all important words, chances are it won't be enough. In fact, it's possible to say sorry in a way that makes things worse. There's the "I'm sorry, but …" which shifts the blame and the "Fine, I'm sorry …" which is less about true repentance and more about ending the argument.

"Apologising is not so much about learning to say 'I'm sorry'," says Moriette . "A good example is my 5-year-old saying: 'But mummy, I said I was sorry' and therefore thinking he can just carry on. In his world, saying sorry is a magic formula that would erase any wrongdoing."

So what makes an apology effective? According to Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Dubai, there are four key criteria: be genuine, don't make excuses, make a commitment to change and word the apology carefully.

"Poor apologies would include insincerity or may be too forthcoming as if to cover up an ulterior motive," says Hamden. "This type of communication will be seen and felt as manipulation leading to exploitation."

According to Hamden, it is also important to accept that there may be an awkward conclusion to the conversation. After all, you can apologise but you can't force forgiveness, nor can you immediately erase the feelings your previous words or actions have produced; this takes time.

But at least by apologising you are doing all you can to restore peace. You also create a good impression of a person who is able to act with integrity, honour and maturity.

"Taking responsibility allows the other person to realise that humans make mistakes that are correctable," says Hamden. "Admission to error gives others a sense of confidence in the person who has apologised, knowing they are trustworthy and respectable as well as mature."

We are conditioned to believe that perfection means being right all the time, but in fact there is greater perfection to be found in being able to correct mistakes - there lies the beauty of a good apology.

"Remember," says Hamden, "we cannot change history, but we can correct history in the present to foster an effective future."