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How to Apologize the Right Way
By: Rick Fannin
Is it hard for you to say, "I'm Sorry?" Relationships are one of the greatest blessings in life, but relationship conflicts can also cause considerable emotional pain and stress. Knowing how to apologize can be the key to getting true forgiveness and moving a relationship forward in a positive way. However, if you don't know how to apologize sincerely, you can actually make things worse.
A sincere and effective apology is one that involves reflecting on your actions, taking responsibility for them, and making changes to improve things in the future. In other words, you need to really believe you did something wrong, are accountable and responsible for the damage done to the relationship, feel sorry for the hurt you caused, and are committed to changing these behaviors to prevent similar pain in the future. Here are some easy steps to help you learn how to apologize sincerely and effectively and why it is so hard to say I'm sorry.
Why Apologizing Can Be Hard
While we know we should apologize, it's not always easy. Doing so opens us up to the possibility of being confronted with anger and resentment by the offended person. For some people, rather than an admission of having made a mistake, an apology often feels like an admission that they are inadequate, a failure, or that there is something inherently wrong with them. Others believe that offering the first apology after an argument is an admission of guilt and responsibility for the entirety of a conflict that involved wrongs on the part of both parties. They think an apology from them will allow the other person to take no responsibility for their own part in the conflict. Others may see apologizing as a sign of weakness. Sometimes, an apology calls attention to a mistake that may have gone unnoticed.
However, in the right circumstances, a well-delivered, appropriately sincere apology will generally avoid all of these issues. It will merely serve to usher in a resolution, reaffirm shared values, and restore positive feelings. You just have to know when and how to deliver your apology.
Recognize the Reasons to Apologize
When you've made a mistake or hurt another person, there are many good reasons to apologize. By apologizing, you are able to:
- Acknowledge that you were wrong
- Discuss what is allowed and not allowed in your relationship
- Express your regret and remorse
- Learn from your mistakes and find new ways of dealing with difficult situations
- Open up a line of communication with the other person
- Make room for and welcome the act of forgiveness
- Comply with Biblical and spiritual core principles
- Sets you free from guilt or shame over the offense
A sincere apology can bring personal relief, particularly if you have guilt or toxic shame over your actions. An apology alone doesn't erase the hurt or make it OK, but it does establish that you know your actions or words were wrong and that you will strive harder in the future to prevent it from happening again. A sincere apology communicates personal accountability and relationship maturity.
Not apologizing when you are wrong can damage your personal and professional relationships. It can also lead to rumination, anger, resentment, retaliation, and hostility that may only grow over time.
Research suggests that some of the major reasons people don't apologize are that they aren't really concerned about the other person, apologizing threatens their self-image, struggle with an already low self-esteem, or believe that an apology won't do any good anyway.
The Benefits of Apologizing
We may have learned about the need for apologizing when we've hurt someone, accidentally or otherwise, but do you know why apologizing is really important, and what function a good apology serves? Researchers and psychologists have pinpointed some important reasons why apologizing is necessary when social rules have been violated.
Some of the good things that come from a sincere apology:
- Apologizing when you've broken a rule of social conduct re-establishes that you know what the "rules" are and you agree that they should be upheld. This allows others to feel safe knowing you agree that hurtful behavior isn't OK.
- Apologies re-establish dignity for those you hurt. Letting the injured party know that you know it was your fault, not theirs, helps them feel better, and it helps them save face.
- Apologizing helps repair relationships by getting people talking again and making them feel comfortable with each other again.
- A sincere apology allows you to let people know you're not proud of what you did and won't be repeating the behavior. That lets people know you're the kind of person who is generally careful not to hurt others and puts the focus on your better virtues rather than on your worst mistakes.
Relationships can be great sources of stress relief, but conflict can cause considerable stress, which can take a toll emotionally and physically. By learning the art of apologizing effectively, you may significantly reduce the negative effects of conflict and relationship stress. Apologies help us put the conflict behind us and move on more easily.
Many benefits come from forgiveness in terms of happiness and stress relief. In these ways, being adept at apologizing when appropriate can bring the benefits of stronger relationships, reduced conflict, and forgiveness. While apologizing is not easy, it's well worth the effort.
Know When to Apologize
Knowing when to apologize is as essential as knowing how to apologize. Generally speaking, if you suspect that something you did, on purpose or by accident, caused someone else hard feelings, it's a good idea to apologize and clear the air.
If what you did would have bothered you if it was done to you, an apology is in order. The golden rule of "Do unto others as you would have done to you" can be your measuring stick to determine if an apology is appropriate. If you're not sure, an apology not only offers you the chance to "own" mistakes you made but re-establish what you think was OK. If you feel the other person is being unreasonable, a discussion may be in order. You can decide where you stand on the apology after that.
While a sincere apology can go a long way toward mending a relationship, people are often unwilling or unable to take this step. Pride, ego, and fear are often the primary blockers to being able to apologize. Admitting you were wrong can be difficult and humbling.
Researchers have found that people who believe that personality is changeable are more likely to apologize for harmful actions. Because they feel that change is possible, they feel that accepting the blame for their mistakes is an opportunity for learning and growth.
"Don't let the sun go down upon your anger."
Step 10 of Alcoholics Anonymous says, "When you are wrong, promptly admit it." I strongly adhere to this, and it's one of the best pieces of advice I have ever come across. Unfortunately, most people do not practice this philosophy, quite the contrary, and it's a shame. Delaying and pretending nothing is wrong often makes things worse. Way worse and much harder to fix.
Let Them Know That You Realize You Hurt Them
Tell them how much you regret what you did, you know it was wrong, and you value their feelings. Validate the emotions that you see as a result of the hurt that you caused. Express that you wish you could turn back time and change what you said or did. "I can see that you are really hurt right now, and I wish that I could take things back that I said."
Be careful not to say anything along the lines of "If I hurt you, I'm sorry." Doing so means that you don't understand that you did hurt the person. "If" and words like it put the blame on the other person for feeling hurt instead of on the person who committed the offense.
Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes you made that hurt the other person, and it's one of the most important and neglected ingredients of most apologies. Without taking responsibility, saying "I'm sorry" becomes just empty words.
Saying something vague like, "I'm sorry if you were offended by something I said," implies that the hurt feelings were a random reaction on the part of the other person. Saying "I'm sorry you are so angry" actually invalidates the other person's emotional experience. However, "When I said [the hurtful thing], I wasn't thinking. I realize I hurt your feelings, and I'm sorry," acknowledges that you know what you said that hurt the other person, and you take responsibility for it.
Don't make assumptions, and don't try to shift the blame. Make it clear that you regret your actions and that you are sincerely sorry.
When learning how to apologize effectively, it's important to understand the value of expressing regret. Taking responsibility is important, but it's also helpful for the other person to know that you feel bad about hurting them and wish you hadn't. That's it. They already feel bad, and they'd like to know that you feel bad about them feeling bad.
What to Say When You Want to Apologize
- "I wish I could take it back."
- "I wish I had been more thoughtful."
- "I wish I'd thought of your feelings before I did that."
- "I apologize, it was wrong for me to…."
- "I feel terrible. I shouldn't have …."
- "I'm sorry. I take responsibility for…."
- "This was my fault. I should have…"
- "It was wrong of me to…"
These are all expressions of regret that add to the sincerity of your apology and let the other person know you care.
Give the other person a chance to respond without interruption. Forgiveness may take time and is not guaranteed. Be prepared to discuss changes you will make to avoid repeating the same behavior.
If there's anything you can do to amend the situation, do it. It's important to know how to apologize with sincerity, and part of that sincerity is a willingness to act.
What to Say When You Make Amends
If you broke something: "How can I replace it?"
If you said something hurtful: "I know my words hurt you. I should have never spoken that way to someone I love and respect. I'll do my best to think before I speak in the future."
If you broke trust: "Is there anything I can do right now to help build your trust?"
Whatever you can do to make things better, do it. Humble yourself and ask, "What can I do to make things right." But then, be sure to take action on these things to make things right and give depth and meaning to your words.
One of the most important parts of an apology and one of the best reasons to apologize is to reaffirm boundaries. Healthy boundaries are important in any relationship.
When you come into conflict with someone, often a boundary is crossed. If a social rule is violated or trust is broken, an apology helps to affirm what kind of future behavior is preferred.
Discussing what type of rules you both will adhere to in the future will rebuild trust, boundaries, and positive feelings. It provides a natural segue out of the conflict and into a happier future in the relationship.
For example, you and your partner, friend, or family member can discuss things you won't tolerate, including:
In addition, you can work together to set expectations about how you should treat each other emotionally, physically, and sexually. If you're having trouble agreeing on these boundaries, you and your loved one may benefit from seeing a family therapist or couples counselor.
Own Up to Your Part, Not Theirs
Remember that you're taking responsibility for your part of the conflict when you apologize. That doesn't mean you're admitting that the entire conflict was your fault. People are often afraid to apologize first because they think whoever apologizes first is "more wrong" or the "loser" of the conflict.
Giving an apology even when only a small part of the conflict was your responsibility is OK and often healthy. It allows you to establish what you regret about your own actions but also confirms your own boundaries.
It's important to be fair in your apology, both to the other person and to yourself. Don't accept all the blame if it isn't all your fault.
Apologize for the Right Reasons
When you apologize for just what you did, you can more easily move forward and put the conflict behind you, regardless of the other person's actions. When we apologize, we can maintain our integrity and forgive ourselves more easily.
The other person may be moved to apologize for their actions as well. While getting an apology is often nice, it's important to remember that this doesn't always happen. Trying to evoke an apology from the other person is a manipulative tactic that sometimes backfires.
Apologize for your own peace of mind, and the other person may be inspired to do the same. But be sure not to apologize just because you expect an apology in return.
Don't Overdo It
Generally speaking, the apology should fit the mistake. Excessive reparations or behavior that goes above and beyond what they asked of you might help ease your guilt, but it won't necessarily have any benefits for the person you wronged.
It might even lead them to doubt your sincerity — after all, you didn't listen to their request.
Say someone stole your friend's bike when you borrowed it and left it unlocked. They send you a link to a secondhand version of the same bike and ask you to purchase it as a replacement.
Instead, you choose an entirely different (and much more expensive) new model in an effort to convey how truly sorry you are. When you give them the new bike, they don't attempt to hide their disappointment and annoyance.
While you might imagine a lavish gesture, or an apology you repeat every time you see them, shows your extreme contriteness, it can actually have a negative effect. Over-the-top apologies can seem mocking and insincere. They also tend to convey more of your feelings than any recognition of the other person's pain.
Remember: The apology is for them, not for you.
Formally Ask Them for Forgiveness.
After you have thoroughly talked things through, then formally ask them for their forgiveness. "Christy, I'm asking for your forgiveness. Will you please forgive me?" If what you're asking forgiveness for is something that caused deep hurt, add, "I understand you need time to think about it." You don't want to assume that just because you asked for their forgiveness, they're going to hand it right over to you.
Let Go of Results...to an Extent
Although apologizing can be a way to maintain integrity and move on from actions we're not proud of, most of us also want to repair the relationship and be forgiven. Sometimes this doesn't happen.
If the apology was sincere and included the necessary ingredients, your chances of forgiveness are greater. Still, sometimes the other person just isn't ready or able to forgive and move on. Or they may forgive you but remain guarded. Or they may not realize their own role in the conflict. You can't control their response, and if you've done everything you can, let it go for now.
Choose Your Method
Verbal apologies are appropriate under most circumstances, but making amends in writing can also have its benefits. Many people experience discomfort with a face-to-face apology, and while this discomfort alone isn't a good reason for a written apology, it can be a factor—especially if your discomfort affects your ability to express yourself.
Writing out your apology in a letter, email, or even text can give you the time to thoughtfully craft your apology, making sure to accept responsibility, express remorse, and reaffirm boundaries.
On the other hand, written apologies may be too formal for some mistakes and not personal enough for others. And if a response doesn't follow the written apology, you may be left with an unresolved conflict.
How to Know If Your Apology Was Accepted
In general, you'll be able to tell if your apology was accepted if the person took the following steps:
Listened to your apology or acknowledged reading your apology
Thanked you or showed appreciation for your apology
Responded to your apology, saying, "It's OK," or "Please don't ever do that again," or even, "Thanks, but I still need more time to think."
It's important to remind yourself that even if someone accepts your apology, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're ready to forgive you. True forgiveness may take some time, so stay calm and be patient.
Final Thoughts on Apologizing
Finding the right way to express how sorry we are can be so challenging that some people avoid it altogether. But I encourage you to confront these situations and apologize when you are wrong. And if you are going to apologize, apologize in the right way.
There is a right way to apologize, and there are apologies that just make things worse. Don't be one of those people who always fall in the latter category.
An apology done the right way is sincere and acknowledges the mistake you made, the other person's pain that resulted, and your desire to make things better. A good apology requires a certain dose of reflection and humility, and when done properly, it shows the other person and yourself that you are not only taking responsibility for your actions but also have learned the lesson and vow to do better next time. A great apology does each of the previous items but is always followed up with action. Just like "faith without works is dead," an apology without actions that make amends and prevent similar mistakes is simply dead empty words.