How to Give a Proper Apology: Do's and Don'ts for Saying I'm Sorry

Updated on February 20, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

As a life coach, teacher, and mom, I know the power of a sincere apology. Owning our mistakes and atoning for them strengthens our bonds.

  • Do you hate saying "I'm sorry" and typically muck it up?
  • Have you ever clumsily offered up amends only to have the person get incensed by what you said?
  • Have you ever sent a written apology and never heard from the recipient again?
  • When you apologize do you wind up offering lame excuses for your bad behavior?

If you're nodding your head "yes" to these questions, don't despair! You're not alone when it comes to failing miserably at saying "I'm sorry." Find out what you're doing wrong so the next time you need to make amends, you'll be better prepared and increase your chance of being forgiven.

When giving a proper apology, own what you did and don't make the other person responsible for feeling hurt.
When giving a proper apology, own what you did and don't make the other person responsible for feeling hurt. | Source

1. State What You Did Wrong

Many of us would rather get our teeth drilled than acknowledge we caused someone hurt. It takes a confident, well-adjusted, and self-reflective person to admit when they're wrong. In fact, studies show people with low self-esteem are less likely to apologize than those with high self-esteem.

In "5 Reasons Why Some People Will Never Say Sorry," Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist, asserts that those who refuse to apologize are protecting their fragile sense of self. Admitting a wrongdoing would threaten their identify as a good and decent person. When we step up to the plate, therefore, to make amends, we're displaying emotional maturity and depth of character. When we give a proper apology, we've hit a home-run!

2. Own Your Misdeed and Don't Make Excuses

A proper apology involves taking responsibility for your transgression, showing insight into why you acted the way you did, and avoiding lame excuses. Self-awareness about your bad behavior shows you take the situation seriously enough to afford it thought and reflection. That goes a long way in making the injured person feel better.

Stacy was a young mother who started seeing a therapist for depression after her son was diagnosed with autism. She confided in her best friend, Charlotte, and asked her not to tell the other moms in their play group. Yet, within a matter of weeks, Charlotte had blabbed to everyone.

A proper apology would involve Charlotte admitting what she did, explaining why she did it, and acknowledging that it was hurtful to Stacy. She could say: “I'm so sorry I revealed that you're seeing someone about your depression. I feel insecure in our group and having something juicy to share made me feel special. I know that sounds pitiful. I betrayed your trust by making something private public. I hope you can forgive me.”

The first to apologize

Is the bravest.

The first to forgive

Is the strongest.

And the first to forget

Is the happiest...

3. Don't Blame the Injured Person

Unfortunately, Charlotte didn't give her bad behavior any thought and didn't own up to the pain she caused. Instead, she simply said to Stacy, “I'm sorry you got hurt when I told the others you were seeing a therapist about your depression.” Many people like Charlotte are guilty of making these non-apology apologies that shift blame to the injured person. With those carefully chosen words, Charlotte implied that she did nothing wrong. But, worse than that, she faulted Stacy for being thin-skinned and bringing on her own suffering.

4. Stick to the Task at Hand

When giving a proper apology, it's important to focus on the task at hand and not get off track. Some people, though, can't accept that they did something wrong, don't want to be the bad guy, and get defensive. They then resort to what psychologists call "kitchen sinking," a strategy of bringing up old wounds from the past so everything gets thrown into the mix but the kitchen sink.

When Stacy questioned the sincerity of her apology, Charlotte got enraged and went off the rails. She brought up the time Stacy arrived late to her baby shower. She accused Stacy of being a bad friend for not replying to her texts. She even reached back to their college years and blamed Stacy for ruining the relationship with her boyfriend. Needless to say, kitchen sinking is a terrible strategy to use when offering up amends, makes the entire situation worse, and can obliterate a relationship.

5. Apologize in Person, Not in Writing

A verbal apology is far superior to a written one because it allows for dialogue. You see the injured person's facial expressions and body language as you make amends. They might begin to cry in pain or shout in anger, and you will need to comfort them. You must stand there, being vulnerable and not knowing what will happen, rather than hiding comfortably behind your keyboard.

Moreover, a verbal apology clears the air while a written one is open to misinterpretation. The injured person may scan it again and again, stewing over every word, reading between the lines, and feeling victimized all over again. They may think you're a coward for putting it in writing rather than apologizing face-to-face and dealing with their response.

Dr. Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist, spent years of his life studying how people make amends and why some apologies succeed while others fail. He authored the quintessential book on the topic entitled On Apology. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to communicate "I'm sorry" more effectively and strengthen their relationships. He says giving a proper apology is "an act of honesty, an of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and act of courage."

A written apology can be misinterpreted and lead to more hard feelings.
A written apology can be misinterpreted and lead to more hard feelings. | Source

6. Never Add "But" to an Apology

Many apologies veer off course and ultimately crash and burn when people feel compelled to throw in that one little word: but. With that addition, the apology becomes virtually worthless and everything said before it gets negated. The but is just another way to make excuses and shift some blame to the injured party. I'm sorry, but you've done far worse to me... I'm sorry, but you were provoking me... I'm sorry, but you never listen to anything I have to say and I couldn't take it any more.

Charlotte made the but blunder when apologizing to Stacy. She said, "I guess it was wrong of me to tell the other moms that you're seeing a therapist for depression, but I knew they'd want to support you." Once again, Charlotte tried to downplay what she did, making it seem not so bad, and adding that her intentions were pure.

You should never ruin an apology with an excuse.

7. Ask for Forgiveness

After saying I'm sorry, it's important to ask: “Do you forgive me?” You've had your say and now the ball is in the injured person's court. This is a crucial step because you're giving them the power, allowing them to accept or reject the apology.

Many people skip this step because it makes them feel too vulnerable. They fear they won't be forgiven. This is the risk they must take, though, and it might require their patience. The injured person may not yet be ready to forgive, and they're now in control of the time-line.

Sorry is not enough.

Sometimes you actually have to change.

8. Change Your Behavior

Even though Charlotte fumbled her apology to Stacy in many ways, she did one crucial thing right: she changed her behavior. Although it took her awhile to look inward, she finally did and saw how she'd become a gossip. She reflected on how her low self-esteem propelled her into behaving badly, fueled by her need to have something interesting to say that would capture everyone's attention.

With this self-realization, she stopped gossiping and found other more substantive ways to feel significant. Stacy saw the changes Charlotte was making and started to trust her again. It took a couple of years, but Charlotte finally offered another apology—this time a proper one that showed true remorse—and Stacy was more than willing to accept it.

What Do You Think?

When receiving an apology, what is most important to you?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • Some years ago, a friend betrayed me and then apologized. Recently, she brought up that event and laughed at how I "overreacted" at her betrayal. Therefore, it feels like her apology was insincere. Should I still forgive her?

    Your friend foolishly opened up an old wound by reminding you of her betrayal and mocking your reaction. That was a thoughtless thing for her to do. You might ask yourself, “Did you just stupidly mention this incident from the past or did she intentionally bring it up to hurt me?” If the two of you are close and the friendship matters, you should tell her that this has been bothering you. Open a dialogue and clear the air. The only way to make things better is to communicate, not simmer in silence.

    I appreciate how it feels like yet another betrayal. Now you doubt the sincerity of her original apology. It's possible, though, that she still feels bad about the first incident. To relieve her guilt, she unconsciously puts some of the blame on you. While shifting fault to you is unfair, this game of blaming the victim is something we all do at times and is all too human.

    She has given you the perfect opportunity to choose forgiveness once again. Don't let this episode make you a prisoner of the past. Let it make you stronger and more determined to forgive and move forward. Don't hold a grudge against your friend because it will only contaminate your soul, your life, and your other relationships. Your resentment will spill over into other areas of your life and make you bitter. Whether the friendship survives or dies isn't nearly as important as how you handle it and move forward with peace.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers

Comments

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago from Bend, OR

      I have a couple people in my life who owe me BIG apologies , and I'm still waiting. I think it's easier to say I'm sorry as we get older because it's not so tied into our egos. Also, if the relationship is valued, you're willing to put it ahead of anything else. Thanks for commenting, Bill. It means a lot!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My wife and I are still learning how to say "I'm sorry" in a proper manner...but we're getting better at it. :)

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