The Best Way to Apologize and Mean It

by Sheri_Oz

Making up is hard to do! There is a right way to apologize that increases the chances of being forgiven.

Because of your actions or words, someone is now suffering emotional pain and angry at you. There are not very many situations that are more difficult than this. And there are so many ways to hurt a friend, lover, child, parent, partner, colleague. Maybe you broke a promise. Maybe you lied a little bit. Or perhaps you humiliated someone in front of others. Or used harsh and hurtful words in the heat of an argument that you wish you could take back.

You wish it would just go away. You wish everyone would just forget it ever happened. You wish YOU could forget it ever happened.

But it doesn't work that way. If you want honest and trust-filled relationships, you need to be honest and trustworthy. You need to take responsibility for your behavior and apologize.

Components of a Sincere Apology

Whether you committed a crime that could land you in prison or "merely" hurt someone's feelings, the components of the sincere apology are exactly the same:

  1. Explaining in your own words why your behavior was hurtful.
  2. A statement of regret and remorse.
  3. Promising not to repeat that behavior.
  4. Offering some kind of compensation to the one you hurt.

We will look at each of these in turn.

Do You Shy Away From Apologizing?

Some people feel humiliated by having to admit to a mistake and prefer to pretend nothing happened or that the injured party is exaggerating. How do you cope?

An Invaluable Book to Understand the Power of Apologies

On Apology

Some reviewers claim that after you read this book you will never again see apologies in the same light regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end.

View on Amazon

The Good That Can Come From This Situation

We all make mistakes - the great thing is that it is a wonderful opportunity for something new.

First of all, it should be clear that you are apologizing for your behavior and not for how the other person took it. You do not say you are sorry the other person is sad or embarrassed - rather, you are sorry you did something that resulted in them feeling sad or embarrassed. You are responsible for your behaviors and not for the other person's feelings. You do not even have to agree with his or her feeling that way about the situation; after all, you may not have been insulted or upset if someone had done the same thing to you.

What this situation does is teach you something more about the other person. It teaches you something more about what is important to the person you hurt, about their sensitivities, about something that happened in their past. In other words, if you apologize sincerely the two of you can even deepen your relationship:  a friendship can become a more emotionally intimate friendship, a couples relationship can become deeper and closer, a parent can understand his or her child more or vice versa, and so on.

Explain What You Did Wrong

Ask the person you hurt what was hurtful about your behavior or words. If he or she will not talk with you, ask other people who could help you understand what happened from the injured party's perspective.

The first part of your apology, then, whether in person or in writing, should include an explanation showing you understand why your friend, lover, teacher, etc was so angry about what you did or said.

You may get it wrong. If you do, and the other person tells you so, this is good. It means that you are using this opportunity to get to know each other better. Ask him or her to explain again and again until you get it.

You can use a card such as the one below to send your apology by regular mail. People still like to get letters they can hold in their hands, often more than emails.

Expressing Regret for Your Actions

Once the person you hurt acknowledges that you understood how your actions or words were offensive, simply express your remorse by saying "I am sorry I did that to you" or "I regret my behavior" or "my behavior was wrong" or any other similar wording that suits your personality.

Do not attempt to justify or rationalize what you did or said. Doing so is an attempt to make YOU feel less guilty or less shamed by your actions. It detracts from taking responsibility.

Promise Not to Repeat What Hurt

The next step in a sincere apology is to promise not to do the offensive action or say the offensive words again. You can promise to keep it in mind; you cannot promise to always succeed at this. Therefore, you may want to ask the person you hurt to remind you if you start off in the wrong direction once more. This means, of course, that when you are reminded, you immediately stop what you are doing and thank him or her for reminding you of your promise.

You may want to give the person to whom your are apologizing a cute little gift, such as the fridge magnet to the left.

Compensating For Your Mistake

What can you offer to appease the person you hurt? Perhaps you can send an apology email to all who were in attendance when you humiliated your friend at a gathering. Maybe offering to pay for therapy is more in line with what you did. If you broke something then replacing it may be what is called for.

Before you offer recompense, however, ask the other person what would be suitable in his or her eyes. If no answer is forthcoming, then make it clear that he or she can let you know at some later date.

NEVER Ask for Forgiveness

Apologize without expectation of being forgiven.

Apologizing and expressing regret for your actions is a way of taking responsibility for what you have done or said. Asking for forgiveness is putting something onto the injured party that he or she has no obligation to do. Your apology has to be separate from the other person's forgiveness, if and when that should be forthcoming. It is disrespectful to ask the person to forgive you - it even sounds somewhat like a command.

Moreover - never ask the person just to put it behind him or her. That is his or her decision entirely. "Forgive and forget" is not a good policy because it sets the situation up to possibly be repeated and that's what both of you want to avoid.

The pain of having hurt someone will lessen with time. It is best to let it gradually fade away naturally rather than trying to rush the healing along by asking for forgiveness. Think how much happier you will be if the forgiveness comes unbidden by you! Let it be a surprise - and be prepared for the possibility that you will not be forgiven.

How to Cope When You Are Not Forgiven

When the person you hurt does not forgive you, you are left with a gaping hole in your heart that you will have to mend on your own. Explore your behaviors and see if this is something you do to other people as well. Perhaps there are others who are hurt by you but just haven't told you so.

If you do conclude that this particular kind of behavior is not a one-off situation, but something you need to work on, then you can begin to pay attention to the circumstances under which it is likely to occur and you will be able to gradually change it.

In the end, you can forgive yourself. Use the same 4 components of apology when you are working on forgiving yourself. It works.

Other Readings on the Topic of Forgiveness

A brief description of the sincere apology and its characteristics.

A psychologist recommends ways to prepare for apologizing in the most effective manner.

A consultant discusses how the person apologizing should relate to the issue of asking or not asking for forgiveness as part of the apology process.

Updated: 04/21/2014, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 04/21/2014

It's true, WiseFool. It seems to feel like a humiliation in some way to admit we made a mistake. Yet, as you say, it is much more attractive (or relationship maintaining) than otherwise.

WiseFool on 04/21/2014

Nice piece, Sheri. I wonder why we (most of us), find saying 'sorry' so difficult. It's almost like we're wired not to admit when we're wrong. Ironically, there's nothing more attractive than when someone CAN admit their wrong and nothing less attractive than when they can't. I guess, 'sorry' really can be the hardest word!

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