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“More people should apologize, and more people should accept apologies when sincerely made.”Greg LeMond
Apologizing can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do. An apology is often the result of some wrongdoing, where feelings are wounded and mistakes pile up. We’ve all been in a situation where we need to apologize. Perhaps you unintentionally said something hurtful or failed to keep a promise. Maybe things went wrong due to your inaction. Whatever the reason, apologies should be a part of our lives since no one is perfect. However, many people struggle with it because they don’t know how to apologize.
Part of that stems from the challenge of accepting that we need to apologize in the first place. Often our pride gets the better of us. We don’t want to admit we made a mistake or stepped out of line. At other times, immaturity rears its ugly head, making us the most stubborn when we need to accept our shortcomings. Other barriers, according to one study, include having little to no empathy for the victim. But once you know how to apologize to someone, you’ll come to see it as a skill. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Instead of making excuses, you’ll be able to make amends.
In this article, learn how to overcome the issues holding you back from sincere apologies, and learn how to repair damaged personal or professional relationships.
What Are the Key Components of a Sincere Apology?
“Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.”Kevin Hancock
While crafting a sincere and effective apology may sound like an art form, there is some science behind it. In a study from the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University, researchers found that the very best apologies had six components to them. These components include the following:
- Expression of regret: When you express regret, you show the offended party that you feel bad about what you did (or in some cases didn’t do). You sincerely regret how you made them feel and want nothing more than to set things right again. By showing remorse in this way, you indicate how much it means to you that you make a correction.
- Explanation of what went wrong: By detailing what exactly happened, you show that you have a full understanding of the situation. It eliminates the possibility that the conflict only arose from a difference of opinion.
- Acknowledgment of responsibility: This component allows you to explain exactly what you did that caused problems. It ensures you are not sharing empty words. Instead, you acknowledge the part you played that requires you to provide an apology in the first place. This is your opportunity to claim responsibility for what you did. By acknowledging responsibility, you also let it be known you’re not passing the buck to someone else or to unforeseen circumstances. This is your mess, and you are trying to clean it up.
- Declaration of repentance: With a declaration of repentance, you are making a promise that you’ll change your behavior in the future. Not only is this a promise that you won’t repeat the mistake, but you are also vowing not to create more problems through the same actions or behaviors.
- Offer of repair: It’s not enough to say you’ll change. You also need to repair the damage you’ve done. This might be actual physical damage, or it might be emotional or mental in nature. Note that some parties may reject your offer, which is perfectly acceptable. The important thing is to make the offer so they can decide.
- Request for forgiveness: The last component entails requesting the wounded party’s forgiveness. Again, this comes down to their choice, but making that request once again shows your sincerity in making amends.
According to Professor Roy Lewicki, one of the authors of the study, some of these components are more important than others. He explained, “Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgment of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.” Offering to repair the damage came in second. “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” Lewicki said. “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
Additional Components of an Apology
Though researchers found six important components when making heartfelt apologies, other elements can make effective additions.
- Timing: While a late apology is better than none, the closer to the offending incident that you apologize, the better.
- Intentionality: Make it clear you’re apologizing because you did something wrong, not because you want someone to stop bothering you.
- Vision: Create a positive vision of what will come after you have done everything to correct your mistakes.
- Commitment: This is a willingness to do whatever it takes to make things right.
Why You Should Apologize to Someone You’ve Upset or Hurt
“Saying sorry to someone is hard . . . but putting your pride down for someone is the hardest.”Cristina Orante
Nobody is perfect, which is why learning how to apologize to someone is so important. You don’t want to forever damage a relationship, whether that be in your personal or professional life. You also don’t want your mistakes to live on without correction. A good apology helps to repair the damages and mend fences. As psychotherapist and self-help author Beverly Engel points out in her book The Power of Apology, when you learn how to say sorry, you’re helping yourself as well as the person receiving the apology.
Here are just a few of the benefits that come from apologizing:
- Leads to improved emotional healing
- Provides the giver a chance to no longer see the wrongdoer as someone to fear
- Creates opportunities for empathy and forgiveness
- Improves a person’s humility
- Deters people from making future mistakes
- Enhances self-esteem
- Helps people move on
- Deepens connections and relationships
How to Apologize Effectively and Heal Relationships
“The art of a sincere and heartfelt apology is one of the greatest skills you will ever learn.”Jeannette LeBlanc
With a firm grasp of the elements of sincere apologies, you can proceed with the apology itself. There are many situations where you may need to give an apology. Perhaps you’ve unintentionally developed the traits of a toxic boss. Maybe you keep turning in projects past the deadline. Or maybe you keep getting into arguments with a family member. While every apology will be different, depending on the situation, most effective apologies will follow a similar structure.
1. Show Remorse for Your Wrongdoing
Start off by explaining how sorry you feel for what you did. This can be something as simple as saying, “I apologize.” As long as you show yourself as authentically apologetic, the victim will be more receptive to what you’re doing. Always show honest sincerity with this approach. Many people will be able to detect cynicism or fakery right from the beginning.
2. Take Responsibility
Next, own up to the mistake, and explain what it is that you did wrong. This step is the one where many people try to blunt the apology by offering an excuse. For example, if you start apologizing but say that your actions were due to a high level of stress in your life, you’re essentially saying it wasn’t your fault. As Benjamin Franklin once advised, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Instead, this step is where you can show empathy for the victim. Show understanding for how you hurt them and lay out clearly why what you did was unacceptable.
3. Offer to Repair Damage
This step is where you promise to do what it takes to fix your mistake. Make sure you don’t make a promise you have no intention of keeping. Failure to live up to those expectations can make situations worse than if you hadn’t apologized at all. Also, what you offer should be proportional to the offense. Don’t promise the world when the problem is minor in nature. Additionally, as noted above, make it an offer the victim can accept or reject. Even if they end up rejecting it, they may appreciate the gesture.
4. Promise to Change
Close out your apology by promising you won’t make the same mistake again. This requires changing on your part. Every damaged relationship can’t continue unless someone is willing to improve. By promising to change, you’re showing your dedication to healing the relationship and creating an environment of trust once again. Once you’ve concluded the apology, immediately set out to make those changes you promised.
5. Take Action
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. If you constantly apologize but do nothing to follow up on that, you’ll develop a reputation for not keeping your word. Many people fail to truly apologize properly because they forget the last step of fulfilling the apology. Once you’ve said it, immediately take the necessary steps to keep your promises. No apology is complete without action.
Example of Giving a Proper Apology
Here is an example of the type of wording you may choose to use for each step in an apology.
|1. Show remorse for your wrongdoing||“I’m truly sorry for the pain I caused you due to what I said yesterday.”|
|2. Take responsibility||“My behavior was unacceptable. There was no excuse for it. I know I hurt your feelings and left you feeling embarrassed. No one deserves to be treated like that.”|
|3. Offer to repair the damage||“Please let me know what I can do to make things right.”|
|4. Promise to change||“I promise that I will not lose my temper in the future. I will always treat you with respect, no matter the situation.”|
|5. Take action||No wording is necessary but immediately work on controlling your temper, such as by reading a book on how best to do that.|
Apologizing Face-to-Face vs. in Writing
“One who is truly confident is able to apologize.”Olivia Tsoutsoplides
Giving an apology is difficult enough. What makes it even more challenging is doing so face-to-face. It takes a high degree of courage and bravery to apologize face-to-face, not to mention how vulnerable it can make you feel. Despite uncomfortable feelings that can arise during an apology, it is best to choose this option when it is available. However, there are certain situations where writing might be the better option.
Here are some of them:
- The person may not allow you to apologize to them face-to-face. That’s often the case when the offense is particularly bad.
- When you need to be absolutely certain to get the wording exactly right. Writing allows you to review your words and ensure the apology is coming across the way you want it.
- When you suffer from social anxiety or have difficulty interacting with others.
If you choose to write your apology, the same guidance discussed above applies. Here are some additional things to consider:
- Make sure you avoid passive language that gives the impression of avoiding blame. You also don’t want your apology to sound like a company’s PR statement.
- Make it full of emotion and sincerity.
- Lisa Leopold, an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute, advises that people use certain wording to enhance an apology. “Certain intensifiers such as ‘so,’ ‘very,’ ‘truly,’ ‘sincerely,’ ‘extremely,’ or ‘awfully’ in front of the word ‘sorry’ or words such as ‘utmost’ or ‘heartfelt’ in front of the word ‘apology’ can strengthen it,” Leopold says.
Avoid These Common Apology Issues for a Better Path to Forgiveness
“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”Tyron Edwards
Learning how to apologize is one of those conflict resolution skills that is often overlooked. And just like any skill, it’s easy to make mistakes.
Here are some of the most common apologizing mistakes:
- Using indirect language
- Making excuses or deflecting blame
- Rambling or changing the subject frequently
- Apologizing out of obligation rather than sincerity
- Failing to hold yourself accountable
- Pressuring the victim for immediate forgiveness
- Delaying an apology
- Being unable to feel empathy for the victim
- Not taking action on the apology or promise you made
- Allowing the offense to occur over and over again
You can avoid many of these mistakes by being direct and owning up to what you did. Apologies should come from the heart after gaining a real understanding of the pain your actions caused. Take ownership of the problem, and do all you can to fix the mistake.
At the same time, you must understand that forgiveness can take time, especially for grievous offenses. People need space and time to heal. Even if they outwardly forgive you, it may take longer for them to fully trust you. As long as you show commitment to making things right, people will come around.
A key to an effective apology is learning empathy. Find out more in the following article:
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- “The 6 Elements of an Effective Apology, According to Science.” The Ohio State University, 12 Apr. 2016, https://news.osu.edu/the-6-elements-of-an-effective-apology-according-to-science/.
- Bloom, Linda and Charlie. “13 Components Of An Effective Apology: When A Sorry Isn’t Enough.” The Minds Journal, 26 Jan. 2020, https://themindsjournal.com/components-of-an-effective-apology/.
- Engel, Beverly. “Homepage – Heal My Shame | Beverly Engel.” Heal My Shame | Beverly Engel, 29 Aug. 2021, http://healmyshame.com.
- “The Power of Apology.” Psychology Today, 1 Nov. 2022, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200207/the-power-apology.
- Eagle, J. (2021, January 14). How to apologise in writing. Emphasis. https://www.writing-skills.com/how-to-apologise-in-writing
- Lisa Leopold Shares Her Research on Apologies, Both Good and Bad. (2018, October 31). Middlebury News and Announcements. https://www.middlebury.edu/announcements/news/2018/10/lisa-leopold-shares-her-research-apologies-both-good-and-bad