5 Steps to a Great Apology | Family Conflict Management Strategies From a Divorce Mediator

family conflict management strategies - apologizeEver receive an apology that didn’t feel apologetic?

Left you feeling worse?



In mediation — and in life — I see apologies of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Some feel authentic and cathartic.

Some feel compulsory and meaningless.

Some feel passive-aggressive and irritating.

And some downright hurtful.

“I’m sorry you feel that way”

I remember a parenting mediation. They found one another detestable. If not for their daughter they would be non-existent in each other’s lives, or enemies.

To their credit, they were using mediation to focus on co-parenting. They knew that fostering a positive relationship with each parent took precedence over their petty grievances.

At one point the father violated an agreement made during a previous session.

He listened, respectfully, as she angrily conveyed her disgust. When she was done he said,

I hear you. I’m sorry you feel that way.

You could hear a pin drop.

He felt he showed monumental restraint by listening without defending his actions, and apologizing.

She almost blew a gasket.

What happened?

How to make a bad apology

In this case, the father apologized for how she felt, not for what he did.

This felt dismissive to the mother.

He apologized without taking responsibility.

Which is really a non-apology apology!

If you have ever apologized in any of the following ways, it’s possible that you are an ineffective apologizer:

  • “I’m sorry but you also…” (click here to learn why the word “but” is so unhelpful)
    • “But” minimizes the apology
  • Apologizing when you don’t mean it
    • The other person will always know if it’s not genuine
  • “I didn’t mean to upset you…”
    • The impact of something can be hurtful even if the intention was not

Steps to an effective apology using family conflict management strategies

1. Determine if you regret what you did

Do not apologize to get something.

Do not apologize to get the person off your back.

Do not apologize because someone else wants you too.

Apologize because you are remorseful.

This is the only way your apology will feel authentic.

2. Start by expressing remorse using an “I” statement:

  • “I’m sorry that…”
  • “I apologize for…”

3. Take responsibility for what you did without justification or blame

  • “I’m sorry that I was late…”
  • “I apologize for losing my temper and yelling at you…”

4. Empathize with how your actions made the other person feel

  • “I’m sorry that I was late. I can see how that upset you and make it difficult for you to make plans…”
  • “I apologize for losing my temper and yelling at you. I imagine that made you angry — I would have been angry if you did that to me.”

5. Make amends to rectify the situation

  • “I’m sorry that I was late. I can see how that upset you and made it difficult for you to make plans. Next time I’ll leave fifteen minutes earlier, and call you the second there might even be a chance of me being late…”
  • “I apologize for losing my temper and yelling at you. I imagine that made you angry — I would have been angry if you did that to me. I’ll make sure I’m calm before talking about stuff like this with you next time…”

Back to my angry parents and the pin-drop silence…

I let the silence linger.

Then, I turned to the father and asked, “why do you think she is upset?”

It took a few moments and some deep breathes.

And then he explained, in his own words, how she viewed his actions and why it was distressing.

I turned next to the mother and asked, “do you feel he understands where you are coming from?” She grudgingly answered that he did.

I summarized the situation, and asked the husband how he wanted to address her concerns.

He looked at the mother and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you first about what bothered me. I understand how that broke our agreement. I won’t do it again. Next time if I have too I will call an emergency mediation session if I am that concerned with what our daughter tells me.”

And here’s the magical part.

She looked him in the eye and said, “thank you.”

The tension in the room immediately lifted.

Their body language relaxed.

There was an extended pause.

And they moved forward.

The power of an effective apology.

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (20)

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  1. Donya Zimmerman says:

    Nice article on apologizing to others and receiving apologies from others. Life is too short to hold grudges and stay mad at each other.

    • Ben Stich says:

      How great would it be if we could all hang on to that sentiment in the heat of the moment!?

      • Don Gordon says:

        We can hand on to that sentiment in the heat of the moment. Just as this dad did when he took deep breaths, calm our amygdalas and tap into our frontal lobes where we can access empathy and compassion.
        We teach these skills in our Children in Between Online program for co-parenting education. People can learn this fairly quickly if it is presented well using adult learning strategies.

  2. Jeff Smith says:

    Great article on apologizing. It’s something we all need to learn how
    to do effectively, and genuinely.

    (I am a writer and communications consultant who collaborates with
    authors on their books, among other things.)

    Again, nice job on the article.


    Jeffrey R. Smith
    Peak Communications
    Colorado Springs, CO

  3. Beth Ross says:

    Ben, awesome article about apologizing. I am very impressed with how you view the importance of apologizing.

  4. Paul Gerrard says:

    Good article – I could relate to it – I would be most likely to respond much as the father did at first. (i.e. I’m sorry you feel that way.) From experience, I know it does not go down well.

    Clearly, the words “I’m sorry” do not always mean “I apologise”.

    In this case they really mean “I wish you felt differently”

    More importantly perhaps, your example could be interpreted to mean much the same as a shrug of the shoulders and “Not my problem”.

    The 5 steps you suggest are good.

    The difficulty is remembering the 5 steps when someone has been yelling abuse at you for 5 minutes and blaming you for their loss of control.

    Have you got a suggestion for how the wife could have acted differently at the outset in expressing her concerns? If she had acted differently, he would have responded differently.

    Perhaps during a mediation you might have intervened after the wife had spoken and said something like “If I am hearing you correctly, what you are saying is that …. ” Perhaps, such intervention would lead the husband to respond in an more productive manner.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Everything is situational, as you know, Paul. In this case, I had been working with the two parents for about six months, know them well, and frankly was excited they were communicating directly with one another, and listening to one another. At the end I summarized what they had to say, and their interests, and framed it in a manner to help them move forward with respectful communication.

      If it were a mediation at a different stage or different personalities I may very well have done exactly what you stated. I wrote a post some time ago that offers some answers to your question: http://benstich.benstich.com/relationship-issues-marital-problems-3-tips/ Would love to hear what you think, Paul! Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!

  5. Great advice. I am also the chairman of a professional disciplinary committee that often requries professionals to write formal apology letters. I’ve rejected more than my share of “I’m sorry for they way you feel” letter. I’ll use your article in my professional work, not just with my dating clients.

  6. Sheri Russell, Bellingham Mediation says:

    Great article. Thanks Ben. Do you mind if I share this with my clients?

  7. Susie says:

    Thank you Ben. Excellent article with practical step-by-step info. Have shared on my FB page♡

  8. Shawn Weber says:

    This is great stuff. I believe one of the most underutilized mediation tools is the power of an honest apology. I intend to use your tips in coaching my clients to give honest and effective apologies. Sometimes this is the only barrier to a settlement. Thanks!
    Shawn Weber

    • Ben Stich says:

      Thanks Shawn! That is one of the highest forms of flattery – thank you. And yes, I agree it is an underutilized tool in mediation, and generally in life. The “I’m sorry, but…” is nothing more than a non-apology apology! Thanks for checking in and all the best with your mediation practice.

  9. Mark says:

    NJ has mandated mediation, prior to a trial. I found out she was cheating with multiple men which prompted the filing for divorce. My soon to be former wife claimed almost 4.5 years of irreconcilable differences in a court document but I was blindsided by everything. Never a discussion of major problems. To say I feel defrauded is an understatement. It’s been 6 months since the filing. We’ve had little contact and mediation is approaching (w/our lawyers). I’ve been to 2 Therapist with no real help. The second one says I have PTSD. She has never apologized or has any remorse. Our youngest is 18. How in the world can I be involved with the rage burning strong. And I have to pay her alimony which is further infuriating. The last thing I want to do is be fair. I’d rather bite her head off. Any advice would be helpful. Thank You

    • Ben Stich says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you for commenting. Needless to say it seems like an incredibly difficult situation for you. I have never worked in a system with mandated mediation, but to a degree it feels like an oxymoron — a core principal of mediation is voluntariness. Having said that, with your attorney present it might be better to gameplan with him/her to take an active lead if you are worried you won’t be able to manage your emotions and/or moderate your behaviors because of your deep anger and resentment.

      She may not be willing but another option is to request she engage in private mediation or counseling so you have a forum to open communication outside the context of your divorce negotiations. Another resource for you is the High Conflict Institute website (http://www.highconflictinstitute.com) — they have some great resources for folks going through high conflict divorce.

      The single best piece of advice I suppose is to keep your children front and center. While they are adults (or about to be adults) they still need both their parents, and conflict and tension will simply put them in the middle. The divisiveness could potentially interfere with their relationship with one or both of you, and make their own personal lives more challenging. You and your soon to be former wife might be grandparents together — thinking about the impact of your conflict on your children’s wedding day might be a useful image.

      Just some thoughts off the top of my head that I hope might be helpful. Good luck, Mark.

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