How To Apologize Sincerely And Properly

Never apologize, never explain.

This famous quote is credited to many people, from film stars to politicians.

For a long time, many influential people may have seen this as a valid and acceptable attitude.

Not any more!

The very concept is so outdated in today’s world and is justly regarded as intolerably arrogant.

It’s now better understood and accepted that we’re all imperfect and often fall short of the expectations of ourselves and of others.

Therefore, it’s only natural that heartfelt apologies are needed whenever we have, even unwittingly, trampled on someone else’s feelings.

That goes for our close personal relationships and those in the workplace.

It’s just plain common sense to show appropriate humility in today’s world.

Sincere apologies are necessary to show genuine remorse for something you’ve done wrong.

They also serve as a conduit to repairing a relationship.

But, here’s the thing: apologies are never easy and the potential negative repercussions when they go wrong are massive.

And, even if the injured person accepts your apology, it may take a long time before you’re truly forgiven – it’s a process that can’t be hurried.

Sometimes, when an apology doesn’t go to plan, you can end up doing more harm than good.

The hole you’ve dug for yourself just keeps on getting deeper, no matter what you do.

That’s because the whole process of apologizing is actually more psychologically complex than you might think, which is why we often get it wrong.

It pays dividends to take a little time to consider how you can say sorry in such a way that the other person believes it and accepts it.

A good apology facilitates the beginning of the healing process.

Keep reading to learn some tools to get you through the difficult and painful task of saying sorry with a more positive outcome.

What Makes A Good Apology?

Psychotherapist and best selling author Beverly Engel identifies three separate elements to an effective apology in her book The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships.

She neatly sums these up as the Three Rs: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

If you want your apology to hit the mark and be accepted as sincere and thorough, you need to make sure that it ticks all three boxes.

Let’s consider each of the three Rs individually…

Regret

You know you’ve caused someone hurt or made things difficult for them in some way and you know that an apology is due.

Of course, what you did or said may not have been intentionally damaging, but that was the result.

Now you are full of remorse or regret.

You need to get that message over to the person you’ve hurt, loud and clear.

A great place to start is something like:

“I’m so very sorry for the pain I’ve caused you.”

Responsibility

You need to state clearly that you take full responsibility for your actions (or lack thereof) that caused the hurt.

You can make that clear with a statement like:

“I’m so sorry, I did something inexcusable and I realize that it hurt you deeply.”

Remedy

What’s done is done and can’t be undone.

That said, you need to show a willingness to do whatever you can to limit the effects of the harm you caused.

So, in the final element of your meaningful apology, you need to state your clear intention to make amends… an offer to help or a promise not to make the same mistake again:

“I’m sorry I left you high and dry because I was late. I promise never to do that again.”

The three Rs are a helpful way of summarizing the process, but the matter of apologizing is complex and presents us with a web of potential pitfalls.

There are all sorts of other factors to consider.

For example, do details such as timing and body language directly affect how successful an apology is?

And if it’s not possible to apologize in person, can a written apology achieve the same effect?

Let’s unpick this minefield of manners a little further and try to put it into perspective by taking it step by step.

Step One – Preparation

Taking time to think through how you’re going to apologize is always time well spent.

Every experience is subjective in that two people will often see the same situation very differently.

When apologizing, it’s important to acknowledge and accept that the other person’s ‘truth’ is the way they see it, even if you don’t necessarily agree that they’re ‘right.’

Always think of apologies in terms of ‘I’ and never ‘you/your,’ since it’s your actions which are under the microscope and you must accept responsibility for them.

It’s easy to say, “I’m sorry you were upset,” for example.

Yet, this statement actually denies your own responsibility by implying that it was the other person’s problem.

Changing the word ‘you’ to ‘I’ makes a world of difference:

“I’m sorry I upset you.”

A small, but oh-so-significant shift.

It’s only natural to want to justify and/or excuse your behavior, but the reality is that doing so can undermine the sincerity of your apology.

The trick is to make sure that you acknowledge the hurt you have done to the other person before you attempt to explain the reasons why you did what you did or said what you said.

Forgiveness is a more likely outcome if you…

1. Acknowledge the damage done.

2. Offer excuses only after you’ve accepted responsibility.

3. Recognize what you should have done and assure them that it won’t happen again.

Beware The Word ‘but’

For a word of only three letters, the conjunction ‘but’ packs quite a punch when it comes to undermining your apology.

This small word is what’s known as a verbal eraser.

It shifts the focus from the point of the apology (acknowledging responsibility and expressing remorse) to justifying your behavior.

The likelihood is that people will stop listening when they hear the word ‘but’ and your apology will be null and void.

Rather than saying:

“I’m sorry, but I was feeling stressed,”

switch to a much more conciliatory:

“I’m sorry I lost my cool. I know that was hurtful and unnecessary. I was stressed and I said things I regret.”

You may also like (article continues below):

Step Two – Time And Place

Such important and sensitive matters as apologies need to be given due time to work through.

If they’re hurried, they’re rarely effective.

As we’ve already learned, there are those Three Rs – regret, responsibility, remedy – to get through, and that takes time.

It’s important, then, to choose a time when you’re really able to focus on the apology and the person you’re apologizing to.

Any distractions, physical or mental, will diminish its effect exponentially.

Finding somewhere quiet, where you can talk comfortably without interruptions, is essential.

Privacy is important, too, since you’re likely to be discussing some very sensitive, personal stuff.

Avoid The Heat Of The Moment

Although you may sometimes realize immediately when you’ve done or said something hurtful, it’s usually unwise to attempt an apology in the heat of the moment.

The massive negativity of emotion will make it meaningless and it probably won’t sound very sincere.

Bide your time till things have cooled down.

Be aware, though, that waiting too long to apologize can be damaging, too, so it’s a fine balance to strike.

Take It On The Chin

Apologizing in person, no matter how difficult that is to do, is always the best approach.

It shows courage, as everyone knows how hard it is to do these things face-to-face.

That courage helps to show sincerity rather than hiding behind a keyboard and clicking a mouse or pinging a text.

Face-to-face contact also allows the all-important nonverbal communication – facial expression and body language – to do its part in showing how sincere you are.

Your remorse and vulnerability will clearly come across to the other person.

Putting It In Writing

There are times when it’s just not possible to apologize in person because of distance or maybe time constraints.

In that case, telephone is a preferable option to the written word, as the tone of your voice will help to communicate the strength of your feelings as much as what you actually say.

If, however, you have a tendency to bumble any attempt at speaking from the heart, then a written apology is a good choice.

It might be because you’re nervous or because you struggle to keep a train of thought, but you may be one of those people who finds it hard to express themselves verbally.

If so, writing your apology either on paper or digitally will be less stressful and may even prove more effective as it sets out your whole ‘case’ clearly and logically.

Another benefit of a written apology is that it takes the pressure off the person you’re apologizing to.

The wronged person has time and space to decide if s/he is prepared to forgive you

They also have the chance to read and re-read your words, digest the contents and come to a conclusion in their own time.

Step 3 – The Apology

Back To The Three Rs

When you’re physically composed, you’re in the right place and it’s the right time, you’re ready to express your regret, accept your responsibility, and suggest how you plan to remedy the situation.

You will have thought this all through in advance as part of your preparation (don’t over-rehearse, or your credibility will rapidly plummet) so delivering your apology calmly and sincerely should be easily achievable.

Be Open, Calm, And Listen Carefully

As you speak, it’s only natural that the person who’s been hurt will want to respond.

They may still be upset and they have a right, of course, to express their feelings.

Quite often their response will be to rattle off a pattern of similar past behavior that they believe is connected.

Be sure to allow them to finish and pause for thought before you reply.

Consider what they’ve said and do your best to see the scenario from their perspective.

Whatever you do, don’t shout or hurl insults, even if you disagree with what you hear or feel it’s unfair.

If things get a little heated, forgiveness and resolution is unlikely, so suggesting a ‘timeout’ might be a good idea to restore calm.

Body Language

Nonverbal communication plays a key role and is just as important as what actually comes out of your mouth.

There’s little point in making a sincere verbal apology if you’re slouching, hunching, or sitting defensively with your arms crossed.

These would indicate that you’re actually closed off and not truly engaged with the conversation.

Conversely, if you’re ram-rod straight and leaning forward, you’ll appear arrogant and controlling, which are both the opposite of what’s needed.

Aim for humility.

Likewise, a grimace or sour expression will have a similar effect. Forcing yourself to smile is unwise because you’ll look insincere.

Take a moment to relax your facial muscles from time to time.

Eye contact is important, too.

Overdoing it can seem intimidating, but failing to make enough eye contact belies sincerity.

If you aim to make direct eye contact for around 70% of the time when you’re listening and 50% when you’re speaking, then you’ll get the ratio about right.

Hand gestures are another giveaway of your true feelings, so be sure to use open palms rather than closed hands/fists while speaking.

If it’s appropriate and the person is close to you, then touch is a great way to let them know how you feel about them.

A gentle touch on the arm or hand, or a warm hug, can speak volumes.

Conclude With Gratitude

When your apology has been delivered and accepted, it’s important to express how grateful you are for their presence in your life and the difference that presence makes to you on a daily basis.

Express your heartfelt wish not to damage or jeopardize the relationship in any way.

Each and every human experience, both the good and the bad, is a building block which ultimately makes us what and who we are.

Most of us strive for improvement throughout our lives.

If handled sensitively, the process of making an apology and forgiveness being received in return can strengthen rather than weaken a relationship.

Better yet, it can help us to better understand our own shortcomings and maybe take baby steps toward being the best version of ourselves.

About Author

Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.