No matter how hard we try to be fair, decent people, we all have to apologize to someone from time to time. Sometimes these apologies are sincere and you genuinely feel remorse for something you said or did. Other times, well, you go through the motions apologizing for something because you feel obligated to do so, or it’s required of you at work or to maintain a relationship — but in your heart, you don’t truly feel sorry about it.
Either way, apologizing can be awkward and uncomfortable — and it takes a certain level of skill to apologize in a way that won’t further alienate or hurt the individual you’re trying to say sorry to. Here are a few tips from experts on how to effectively — and convincingly — say you’re sorry. — because we all need to do it every once in a while.
What are the most important components of an apology?
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the components of an apology. An apology begins with listening and asking questions to make sure you completely understand why the other person is upset, Celeste Headlee, communication expert and author of We Need to Talk tells SheKnows.
The next step is expressing regret for making a choice that hurt the other person and then describing how you intend to make sure it won’t happen again, she explains. Along the same lines, Dr. Alisa Ruby Bash, a licensed marriage and family therapist says that the most important components of an apology are seeing how sad and regretful someone is about their actions and the pain it caused, as well as feeling that they are honest and genuinely promising to change their behavior in the future. “It helps if they are truly humble and do not try to defend or fight back if the other party is still angry or needs to vent,” she tells SheKnows.
How and where you apologize also makes a difference. Headless says that it should take place in person or over the phone — not through a text or email. “Apologies that are communicated in writing don’t activate the part of the brain that ultimately leads to forgiveness,” she explains. “If you send an apology through email or text, there’s a good chance the issue will remain at least a minor sore spot for months or years to come.”
Eye contact and language also matter, Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch” tells SheKnows. Specifically, she says that it’s important that the words and the affect (i.e. body language, facial expression) match.
“Direct eye contact, kindness and love cannot be faked. And, those components are really important when apologizing,” Bash explains. “Swallowing one’s pride and apologizing within itself is a sign that someone values the relationship. Sometimes, feeling respected, honored, and valued is the most important part of the forgiveness process.”
Lastly, Bash adds that while an apology cannot always guarantee mercy, it is usually imperative when it comes to resolving conflict. Learning to apologize sincerely is an essential part of any long term relationship, she notes.
What is a wronged person looking for out of an apology?
Of course, this depends on the person and the situation, but regardless of the scenario, Dorfman says that it’s important that the individual specifically acknowledges and takes ownership for his or her actions. Part of that is that the wronged person would like to know that the apologizer will make genuine efforts to prevent a recurrence — otherwise it can feel like “lip service” rather than an actual apology.
Often the wronged person appreciates when the apology accompanies the apologizer’s recognition of the behavior’s impact. Dorfman says that an example of this could be something like: “I am sorry that I yelled at you in front of the kids. I can understand why you felt undermined when I did so.” Finally, they want to know the person learned a lesson and will not make the same mistake again, Bash says.
And sometimes the wronged person just want to know that they’ve been heard, Headless says. “Don’t rush to an apology, because the wronged person needs as much time as needed to express themselves and describe why they felt hurt or betrayed or angry,” she explains. “The ultimate goal is to show that you’re not going to do it again or try your best not to repeat the offense so trust can be restored”.
What makes an apology sincere? (Or at least seem sincere?)
So maybe you’re genuinely sorry for something — or maybe you’re faking it. Either way, you’re going to want to incorporate these elements to ensure that your at least seems sincere:
Taking responsibility for your part
Own your behavior and its impact on the other person, Dorfman says. Apologizing solely for the person’s reaction — for example, saying “I’m sorry you felt that way” — is not a sincere apology.
Make efforts to ensure that you don’t repeat the behavior
According to Dorfman, your apology may be considered an empty or insincere apology if the individual repeats the behavior.
Express genuine regret/remorse
Genuine remorse or regret is usually detectable as the recipient, Dorfman says. “An apology seems sincere when you can feel someone’s authentic regret,” Bash explains. “For an apology to seem sincere, someone needs to take responsibility for their actions, acknowledge what they did was wrong, and promise never to do it again. The ‘victim’ needs to feel that the ‘perpetrator’ truly feels bad about what they did so that they may feel compassion, and be able to accept the apology.”
Don’t make excuses
Following an apology with a “but…”, detracts from the sincerity, according to Dorfman. For example, saying something like “I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you to the party, but I thought that you wouldn’t come” isn’t a good idea. You can explain yourself later, if need be, she says. There’s no need to combine it with the apology.
Use clear and direct wording
Try to avoid using vague statements that require interpretation, Dorfman says. “Many people rely on the words ‘I’m sorry,’ she notes. “Though this may seem like an unnecessary formality, the implication is universal.”
Do some prep work
According to Headlee, a sincere apology requires preparation time doing some mental work. Considered how you both contributed to what went wrong, and think about how, specifically, you hurt the other person.
Apologize for feelings, not details
In general, it’s better that you don’t say, “I’m sorry if I was five minutes late,” but instead say, “Being late often seems to make you feel I don’t appreciate you or make you a priority. I’m sorry for hurting you like that,” Headlee notes. “A sincere apology isn’t intended to limit your responsibility, but address the true, underlying issues,” she explains. “That usually requires some discussion and listening in order to discover what the underlying issues are.”
Whether or not your next apology is genuine, these tips should help you navigate the process and come out the other side with some sort of resolution.
A version of this story was published July 2019.
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