How to Give a Proper Apology: 6 Do's and Don't for Saying I'm Sorry

Updated on August 27, 2017
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Our lives are made infinitely richer by our relationships. I love finding ways to strengthen them at home, at work, and with friends.

Use an Apology to Make Things Better, Not Worse

During my years of teaching kindergarten, one of my weightiest undertakings was getting students to talk about their conflicts, reach a resolution, shake hands, and apologize. It frustrates me to no end when hearing parents order their kids to say I'm sorry as a quick-fix solution to an emotional ordeal. The youngsters reluctantly obey by mouthing the words but there's no sincerity, only resentment, and the bad feelings persist. After living on this planet for over half a century, I can say this with great certainty: We humans HATE to say I'm sorry and rarely do it well. In fact, our apologies are often clumsy and half-hearted, making the problem worse, not better. So, to help us all do it more effectively, here are six tips on what to say and what not to say when announcing I'm sorry.

Saying "I'm Sorry" Is an Act of Courage

How to Give a Proper Apology
How to Give a Proper Apology | Source

1. Do Verbalize the Specific Thing You Said or Did That Caused the Problem.

There's no denying this is tremendously difficult because it involves acknowledging our misconduct. Most of us would rather get our teeth drilled than do that! It takes an extremely well-adjusted, self-reflective, and insightful person to admit when she was wrong. In fact, studies show people with low self-esteem are less likely to apologize than those with high self-esteem. Make no mistake about it, a person who is capable of giving a proper apology is truly rare and spectacular.

Fifteen years ago, I was seeing a psychiatrist for severe depression after my son got diagnosed with autism. I asked my mother not to tell anyone, but she immediately blabbed to her new boyfriend. A proper apology would have included admitting what she did, why she did it, and why it was hurtful to me. She could have said: “Nancy, I'm so sorry I told John about you seeing a doctor for depression. I was just trying to think of something interesting to talk about with my new guy. It was stupid of me. I betrayed your confidence and your privacy. I hope you can forgive me.”

If those words (or anything remotely resembling them) came from her mouth, I would have ultimately been able to forgive her and move forward. But, since no decent apology ever got extended, our relationship was permanently damaged.

The first to apologize

Is the bravest.

The first to forgive

Is the strongest.

And the first to forget

Is the happiest...

2. Don't Blame the Victim

Many months after my mother blabbed to her boyfriend, I received a lame I'm sorry that made matters worse because it blamed me, the victim. My mom said, “I'm sorry you got hurt when I told John about your depression.” Ugh! In other words, I was the one who caused the problem by being too thin-skinned. She in no way took responsibility for what she had done to our relationship but put it squarely on my shoulders.

Placing fault on the injured party is an all-too-common way that people apologize. It's offensive, hurtful, and destructive. In my opinion, this kind of fake apology is worse than no apology at all.

When Giving a Proper Apology, Own It!

A bad apology is worse than no apology at all.
A bad apology is worse than no apology at all. | Source

3. Do Make It Short, Sweet, and to the Point.

A proper apology has beauty in its brevity. It's recognizing one's wrongdoing and promising not to do it again. This is the time to own what you did. Your goal is not to win the battle over who's right or who's wrong but to improve the relationship. Keep in mind the big picture. Believe it or not, conflicts (followed by resolutions) can make your connection stronger and deeper.

A verbal apology is far superior to a written one. You need to see the person's facial expressions and body language and be receptive to what she has to say in response. A written apology opens the door to misinterpretation. The person may read it again and again, stewing over every word and reading between the lines. A written apology seems cowardly and impersonal.

I once received a written apology that was three pages long. I stopped reading after the first page. It started off as a sincere I'm sorry and then drifted into a detailing of my many flaws. It's amazing how people are willing to write such mean things on paper but would never imagine saying them to face-to-face. If you won't say it in person, don't write it on paper!

Writing an Apology Is Not Nearly as Effective as Giving One in Person

It's always better to offer an apology face-to-face. Writing one on your computer may lead to misinterpretation and hard feelings.
It's always better to offer an apology face-to-face. Writing one on your computer may lead to misinterpretation and hard feelings. | Source

4. Don't Defend Yourself by Bringing Up Hurts from the Past

This is where many apologies veer off course and ultimately crash and burn. Instead of keeping it straightforward -- saying I'm sorry and stopping there -- you add the all-so-destructive but. The but essentially erases everything that came before it and only serves to make matters worse: 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.

When you use but, you're not fighting fair. This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach gets used by those who need to turn the situation around so they're the injured party. I had a friend who did that with me for many decades. She always had to play the role of the martyr and my feelings went unaddressed. Eventually I grew tired of it and ended the relationship.

You should never ruin an apology with an excuse.

5. Do Ask for Forgiveness.

After saying I'm sorry, ask the all-important question: “Do you forgive me?” You've had your say and now the ball is in the other person's court. She has the power to accept or reject your apology. She's in control.

Many of us ignore this crucial step in the process because it makes us feel vulnerable. We fear rejection. But, when I've asked this question, it's only been met with the kindest of responses such as: “Of course, I forgive you. Don't be silly!” and “I know you meant no harm. It's all water under the bridge.” When you ask for forgiveness, people know how truly sorry you are and usually respond with compassion.

Sorry is not enough.

Sometimes you actually have to change.

6. Don't Demand Forgiveness.

Depending on the offense, it may take a while before someone accepts your apology and offers forgiveness. You've done your part and now it's time to back off and give them space. Nobody owes you forgiveness and it's unwise to demand it.

I had a wonderful friend for many years when I was single. When I got married and had children, she vanished from my life. It was obvious she no longer wanted to hang out with me, didn't want to hear about my kids, and had no want to become a part of their lives. When my boys became teenagers, she reappeared and apologized for having left me high and dry.

While I graciously accepted her apology and forgave her, I decided (after much deliberation) that I didn't want to resume the friendship. Too much time had passed and too much hurt had occurred. But I did admire her for apologizing. She placed the blame on herself – on her wanting to live the wild single life and not wanting to associate with friends who had settled down. It made me feel much better and I appreciated it.

This Book Teaches You How to Give a Proper Apology and Avoid Unnecessary Grief

Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies
Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies

I highly recommend this book. It offers six elements of an effective apology. It teaches you how to make amends with co-workers, friends, family, and your spouse. If I had read it when I was younger, I could have avoided a lot of drama. It taught me a valuable lesson: If you're giving an apology, do it right!


© 2016 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 13 months 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 13 months 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. :)