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What’s your apology language? Three Australian experts explain how to find yours and understand others’

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TED MIN

WORDS BY ALEXANDRA ENGLISH

And how using the right one at work, in love and in life can make all the difference to your relationships.

When we really mean it, “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are two of the most important and terrifying things we say to one another. Yet they can also be some of the emptiest phrases we lob at one another when we want to dodge deeper conversations. We’re at once reserved and precious about them, yet bandy them about carelessly and haphazardly.

So it’s really no surprise that such seemingly simple words can lead to so much confusion, mixed signals and miscommunications. Add to that how each person has a different way of expressing those two sentiments, and the whole business of expressing emotion becomes one big collective gibberish scream into the abyss.

When Dr Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas introduced The Five Love Languages, it cleared up a lot of confusion for couples. People realised their partner really does love them, they were just showing it by washing the dishes (acts of service) or sleeping over for the fourth night in a row (quality time) rather than saying the words (affirmation). Many arguments were resolved on the spot.

In the book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Chapman and Thomas explain how understanding The Five Apology Languages can have the same effect.

So what are The Five Apology Languages?

People have a primary go-to apology language, but it helps to understand all of them and be able to pull out a few at once when the time calls for a genuine, heartfelt apology. Below, three Australian experts explain how learning the right apology language can save your relationship, friendships and career.

#1: Expressing regret

This is where it all starts. Expressing regret is the simple yet deceptively tricky and emotionally loaded act of saying “I’m sorry”. For a lot of people, an apology isn’t really an apology without those two words, because without the other person letting us know they regret what they’ve done, we can’t move on. For others, this is the hardest part of apologising: they’d sooner try every other language before swallowing their pride and saying “I’m sorry.”

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry I left you on read” or “I’m sorry I’m always late.”

In a friendship or relationship: Emma Cholakians, a psychologist and director of Couples Therapy Melbourne, says, “Hearing the words ‘I’m sorry’ from your partner is a critical aspect of your forgiveness because it helps you understand that they regret the impact their actions had on you.”

At work: Leah Lambart, a career and interview coach at Relaunch Me, says, “You may not really like the people you’re working with, which does make it more difficult to apologise. However, in order for the team to function, you need to show respect for your colleagues.”

#2 Accepting responsibility

This one is about ending the blame game and ditching the excuses and justifications (The “I’m sorry, but …”s). This is similar to expressing regret, and they often go hand-in-hand, but accepting responsibility goes one deeper. It’s “I’m sorry I hurt you,” plus “It’s my fault” or “I was wrong”. If you have the urge to jump on the defensive with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!”, stop right there and replace “I didn’t mean to” with “I did that.”

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry I left you on read, I know you needed a response from me and that would have been frustrating for you.” Or “I’m sorry I’m always late, it doesn’t mean I think my time is more valuable than yours, although I realise now that’s what I’m saying every time I make you wait for me.”

In a friendship or relationship: “Accepting responsibility in a relationship is helpful when you need to hear your partner [or friend] own their behaviour,” says Cholakians.

At work: “If you don’t get along with a colleague or your boss, it can be a hard pill to swallow when you need to apologise,” says career coach Jane Jackson. “However, you apologising and taking responsibility for your actions shows maturity.”

#3 Making restitution

As someone who grew up Catholic, I can relate to this one the most. Making restitution is all about finding ways to make things right again, whether that be counting Hail Marys after you’ve broken your sister’s doll or shouting dinner for a friend to make up for cancelling plans at the last minute. Finding ways to repair the damage – even if the scales can’t be completely rebalanced – is important. It lets the other person know that not only are you aware of how you’ve hurt them, you’ve also put in time and effort to show them that you care about them.

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry I left you on read, I know you needed a response from me and that would have been frustrating for you. I’ll initiate the conversation first next time.” Or “I’m sorry I’m always late, it doesn’t mean I think my time is more valuable than yours, although I realise now that’s what I’m saying every time I make you wait for me. Dinner/coffee/drinks are on me next time.”

In a friendship or relationship: You get bonus points if you can make restitution in that person’s love language, Cholakians says. “It’s easier to forgive someone if they can properly reassure you that you are loved.”

At work: This one is particularly helpful when making apologies up or down the career ladder. “It’s even more important to apologise to someone who works for you if you’ve made a mistake because they’re looking up to you for guidance in not only technical skills, but also the soft skills,” Lambart says.

#4 Genuinely repenting

This one is all about changed behaviour – not empty promises that you will behave differently next time, but actual, measurable, changed behaviour that you can be held to. In serious situations, this could include lifestyle changes such as not drinking so much, getting a better handle on your finances, or getting your licence so you can be designated driver for a change.

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry I left you on read, I know you needed a response from me and that would have been frustrating for you. I’ll initiate the conversation first next time, and I’ll work on my communication and organisational skills.” Or “I’m sorry I’m always late, it doesn’t mean I think my time is more valuable than yours, although I realise now that’s what I’m saying every time I make you wait for me. Dinner/coffee/drinks are on me next time. I’ll start setting an alarm so I know when to get ready so I can leave on time.”

In a friendship or relationship: “This language is important when you need assurances that your partner is making concrete steps to change and will try not to make the same mistake again,” Cholakians says.

At work: “If there’s a blow up or someone’s rude to someone else, it’s usually because of something else going on in their life,” Lambart says. “People appreciate that there are bad days, as long as you apologise, acknowledge it and tell the person what you’ve learnt from it and what you’ll do about it going forward.”

#5 Requesting forgiveness

In the name of full transparency, I don’t fully understand the concept of forgiveness. Doesn’t it just mean letting the other person off the hook? Apparently not. Chapman says that asking for forgiveness is a way of giving power back to the person we’ve hurt. When done right, asking for forgiveness shows that we understand there might be more we need to do to make amends, but we are willing to do it on their terms. The apologisee, rather than the apologiser, set the timeline for forgiveness (aka how long they’re going to leave them on the hook).

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry I left you on read, I know you needed a response from me and that would have been frustrating for you. I’ll initiate the conversation first next time, and I’ll work on my communication and organisational skills. I know I have changes to make, can you forgive me and give me time to prove it to you?” (I know, this apology example is getting pretty intense for an accidental unanswered text, but you get the picture.)

Or “I’m sorry I’m always late, it doesn’t mean I think my time is more valuable than yours, although I realise now that’s what I’m saying every time I make you wait for me. Dinner/coffee/drinks are on me next time. I’ll start setting an alarm so I know when to get ready so I can leave on time. Can you give me another opportunity to do better?”

In a friendship or relationship: “When someone asks you to free them of their guilt, they’re showing you that they’re willing to put themselves and the possibility of rejection on the line,” Cholakians says. “It also relinquishes your sense of justice or righteousness.”

At work: “Being able to apologise this way is a positive sign of maturity, strength of character and authenticity,” Jackson says. “There is power in vulnerability, and owning your mistakes shows that you are human, which is an important trait for all professionals.”

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