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How to Give an Effective Apology: The Do's and Don'ts of Saying You're Sorry

Ms. Meyers knows that a sincere apology is a rare and wonderful thing. Owning mistakes and atoning for them keep our relationships healthy.

Saying "I'm sorry that you were hurt by what I did" is not a proper apology.

Saying "I'm sorry that you were hurt by what I did" is not a proper apology.

The Do's and Don'ts of Saying You're Sorry

1. State what you did wrong

2. Own it

3. Don't engage in "kitchen sinking"

4. Apologize in person, not in writing

5. Don't add "but" at the end

6. Ask for forgiveness

Each of these is described in detail below.

How to Make Your Apologies Matter

  • Do you hate saying "I'm sorry" and often 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 "yes" to these questions, don't be too hard on yourself. In fact, you actually deserve kudos for your willingness to apologize at all because many folks simply won’t. It takes a self-assured, well-adjusted, and self-reflective person to admit when they're wrong and offer amends.

Studies show that people with low self-esteem are less likely to apologize than those with high self-regard. In "5 Reasons Why Some People Will Never Say Sorry," Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist, explains that those who refuse to apologize are protecting their fragile sense of self. Therefore, those with the confidence and courage to say that they’re sorry are exceptionable and deserve credit. With that being said, they still may need a little guidance in giving a proper apology that will be well-received.

Make your apologies count.

Make your apologies count.

1. State What You Did Wrong

An essential part of giving a proper apology is to state your offense: I’m sorry that I lied about my whereabouts. I’m sorry that I forgot about your birthday. I’m sorry that I lost my temper and yelled at you. To do this, you must see things from the aggrieved person’s point of view and recognize the pain that you caused them.

Acknowledging your wrongdoing validates their experience and makes them feel seen. It also opens the door to a conversation about what happened, how it made them feel, and why it hurt them so. This is the time to take it in without interrupting, becoming defensive, or making excuses for your behavior. The psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, noted that hearing someone requires letting go of your ego, writing: “True listening involves setting aside of the self.” That laser-focus on the other person is key to a successful apology.

2. Own It

A proper apology involves taking responsibility for your transgression and offering insight into why you behaved badly. An explanation and examination (not an excuse) of your actions show the aggrieved person that you’re taking the situation seriously, affording it thought and reflection. That goes a long way in making the injured person feel better and repairing the relationship.

The story of Stacy and Charlotte illustrates how owning your misdeeds can help save a friendship. Stacy was seeing a therapist for depression after her 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism. Needing to confide in someone, she shared this fact with her pal, Charlotte, but told her not to tell anyone else in their circle. Within a matter of weeks, though, Charlotte had revealed it to three other moms.

Realizing how she had betrayed Stacy’s trust and hurt her deeply, Charlotte took time to figure out why she had behaved so poorly. She resisted the impulse to excuse what she did by minimizing it with thoughts such as: Everybody goes to therapy these days, so telling the others was no big deal. After all, it's not a stigma. Stacy is just overreacting.

Instead, she dug deep to understand her actions. She then went to Stacy and offered a heartfelt apology: “I'm so sorry I revealed that you're seeing someone for depression. I often feel insecure in our group, and having some juicy gossip to share made me feel special. I know that sounds pitiful of me, but it’s the truth. I betrayed your trust by taking something that was private between us and telling others. I hope you can forgive me.”

3. Don't Engage in "Kitchen Sinking"

Giving an apology and admitting our mistake is hard for most of us. When an aggrieved individual is telling us how much they were hurt by our actions, we might feel under attack. Our self-concept as a good person can feel threatened. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some of us strike back by using a common but highly dysfunctional form of communication called “kitchen sinking.

Most of us, at one time or another, have been a victim or perpetrator of kitchen sinking. It involves reaching back into our personal histories with someone and hurling their past misdeeds at them. In other words, you bring up everything that person has ever done to cause you hurt, everything but the kitchen sink.

This technique can be used between friends, co-workers, and neighbors but, most typically, between romantic partners. A wife, for example, may get upset when her husband doesn’t phone to say he won’t be home for dinner. He reluctantly apologizes but then escalates this minor conflict into a huge ordeal by recalling the countless times during their marriage when she was inconsiderate.

Needless to say, kitchen sinking is destructive to a relationship and resolves nothing. Moreover, it completely dismantles an apology. Those who rely on it usually have low self-esteem and aren’t secure enough to hear criticism and take responsibility for their failings.

A written apology can be misinterpreted, leading to more hard feelings.

A written apology can be misinterpreted, leading to more hard feelings.

4. Apologize in Person, Not in Writing

A verbal apology is far superior to a written one because it allows for dialogue. You can see the injured person's facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language and, therefore, feel connected to their pain. They might cry in sorrow or shout with anger, and you will need to comfort them. You must stand there, being vulnerable and not knowing what will happen, rather than hiding safely 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 that you're a coward for putting it in writing rather than apologizing face-to-face and dealing with their reaction.

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. He says that giving a proper apology is "an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage."

5. Don't Add "But" at the End

The most sincere and beautifully articulated apology can be sabotaged with one simple three-letter word: but. When thrown in at the end, it negates everything that came before it. The aggrieved person is left with the impression that you’re avoiding accountability for your bad behavior and shifting responsibility to them.

Ending an apology with but is another way of excusing yourself: 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 say, and I couldn't take it anymore. When saying sorry, you’re displaying tremendous vulnerability and courage. If you’ve made it to that point, don’t undo it with a thoughtless but.

6. Ask for Forgiveness

After offering an apology, folks often skip a critical step: asking the aggrieved person for their forgiveness. After saying I'm sorry, it's vital to ask: “Do you forgive me?” This empowers the other person, giving them time to speak and to answer whether or not they absolve you.

Many people omit this step because it makes them feel too vulnerable. They fear that they won't be excused, and this is unbearable to them. However, it’s a risk that they must take, knowing that their apology may very well be refused. At this point in the process, it’s important that the injured person feels in control and not pressured. Moreover, they should know that they’re in charge of the timeline. Let them know you understand that they may not be ready to forgive now but hope they can in the future.

Questions & Answers

Question: 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?

Answer: 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