A genuine apology can work wonders – it can repair and even strengthen the bonds of a relationship. Unfortunately, the seemingly simple act of saying “I’m sorry” can go wrong in more ways than we might imagine, some apologies can be worse than no apology at all.
So what makes for a truly effective apology? The following guidelines tend to be helpful:
Be specific. A shared understanding of what you’re apologizing for is crucial. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry I spoke rudely to you,” or, “I’m sorry I compared you to your mother,” rather than more vague or blanket statements like, “I’m sorry about earlier,” or, “I’m sorry for everything.”
Be sincere. Don’t say you’re sorry if you’re not. While we’re often coerced as children to say we’re sorry, it needs to be genuine to have a positive effect.
Take responsibility for what you did. While there’s no one right way to apologize, true apologies usually take the form, “I’m sorry I….” Check yourself if you’re about to say, “I’m sorry you…,” as in, “I’m sorry you were offended”—those kinds of statements aren’t likely to repair the relationship like an actual apology.
Provide an explanation (not an excuse). Without justifying your behavior, it’s helpful for the other person to have some understanding of what led to it. For example, a person could explain that she was stressed and hadn’t eaten all day, which contributed to her moodiness—while underscoring that she wants to speak kindly no matter how she’s feeling.
Try to make it right. Restoring a fractured bond requires doing some repair work. For example, if you were distant and distracted when the person was trying to talk with you, plan a time to sit down and give them your full attention.
State your intention to do better. Let the other person know you’ll be working to improve things for the future. Make your intentions realistic—don’t promise, for example, that you’ll “never get impatient again.”
Allow the other person’s reaction to be what it is. Don’t expect instant forgiveness, a heart-melting reconciliation, or a reciprocal apology. It may take time for the other person to receive your apology, and you may need to do additional work to restore trust.
It’s not easy to apologize because it means admitting we’re wrong, and we don’t want to feel like a bad person. But think about how you feel when others apologize to you—most likely it helps rather than hurts your view of them. Apologizing shows that you understand when you’ve hurt someone, and are the kind of person who wants to make it right.
Don’t let these many potential pitfalls fool you—an effective apology is actually quite simple. Just imagine if the roles were reversed, and consider what you would want the other person to say and do. Forgiveness is built into every good relationship, and an authentic apology is the most direct way to get there.