The Art of Saying You’re Sorry: How to Apologize


Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we never had to apologize for anything? Unfortunately, the world is full of hurt feelings, broken friendships, and missed opportunities to rebuild relationships. If you’ve wronged someone else or hurt their feelings, issuing a heartfelt apology is the best way to get your relationship back on track.

Acknowledge You’ve Hurt Someone’s Feelings

At first, you may feel justified in what you did, or didn’t do. “But he said this!” or “She did that!” many people shout, putting the onus on the other person for their bad behavior.

You are responsible for YOUR behavior and actions, not someone else. He or she may have done or said something stupid to trigger your behavior, but that’s no excuse for doing something worse. If you truly did or said something that hurt someone’s feelings, damaged their property or some other action that resulted in someone else being upset, hurt or angry, it’s time to prepare and issue an apology.

Be Responsible for Your Actions

Begin your apology with a simple statement such as, “I’m sorry for telling Joan your secret” or “I apologize for not sending a card for your birthday.”

Starting the apology off with an “I” statement puts the onus on you for the action. You are taking responsibility for the situation, which is the first step in any apology.

Acknowledge the Damage or Hurt Caused

The next step in an apology is to acknowledge the damage or hurt you have caused the other person. This step demonstrates empathy, and acknowledges the other person’s feelings.

“I’m sorry for telling Joan your secret. I know that it must have caused you great embarrassment when the word got out.”

“I apologize for not sending a card for your birthday. That must have made you feel very hurt.”

Offer to Fix the Situation if You Can

Sometimes you can fix what you’ve broken. You can replace an item that’s lost or stolen, or offer something in place of another. Other times, the hurt cannot be repaired. If you forget to send your mother a birthday card, you can offer to take her out to dinner instead. But if in the example with the fictitious Joan you’ve told others a secret she didn’t want shared, you can’t take back the secret. You can only offer an apology, acknowledge the hurt, and own the problem. “Joan, I’m sorry I told Sue your secret. I know it must have caused you great embarrassment when the word got out. I can only say I’m sorry and hope you forgive me.”

Making amends, or fixing the situation whenever possible, is the best way to complete an apology. If you’re apologizing because of something you did, offer to change whatever you did. If you forgot to do something, find a way to do it now, if possible. If you stole or broke something of value to someone else, offer to replace it or refund the value of the item. Complete the process by trying to repair whatever damage you caused.

What NOT to Do During an Apology

Here’s what not to do when you apologize for your mistakes; don’t make excuses. If someone is angry or upset with you, the last thing they want to hear is an excuse. Making excuses for your poor judgment or bad behavior is like throwing gasoline onto a fire – you’re only going to fan the flames of anger higher rather than cool it down. Even though you may feel perfectly justified in what you did, the other person’s feelings are hurt, and making excuses for your own faults are just going to anger them further.

Do NOT say…

“Joan, I’m sorry I told Sue your secret. But honestly, did you really think it wouldn’t get out?”

“Joan, I’m sorry I told Sue your secret. But I did it in your best interests! It’s not healthy to keep something like that bottled up!”

If Joan wanted everyone to know…she would put it on her Facebook update. And unless you’re Joan’s doctor or therapist, don’t tell her what’s healthy or not healthy to keep to herself. If you told Joan’s secret when she asked you to keep it to yourself, you screwed up – she didn’t.

Blaming the other person is a way to ease your own guilt or embarrassment, but an apology isn’t the time to make yourself feel better. In due time after you’ve issued an apology, you may feel better – but your goal should be to help the other person feel better about the situation. Focus on their feelings, not your own.

How to Deliver an Apology

Deliver your apology personally. Don’t ask a friend to do it for you. You can apologize in person, over the telephone, or even in an email if your relationship with the person is long distance. But apologize sooner, rather than later. The longer you wait to issue an apology, the longer hurt feelings can simmer, and the harder it is to apologize.

What if They Won’t Accept Your Apology?

Despite your best efforts at saying you’re sorry, the other person won’t accept your apology. Joan refuses to forgive you and won’t speak with you because you told everyone her secret. Your next door neighbor has had it with you borrowing and finally breaking his lawn mower, and he won’t even answer the phone or doorbell when you show up at his doorstep to apologize and offer to buy him a replacement. What then?

Deliver the apology, and leave it at that. You can only do your part to take responsibility for your actions and try to repair the damage. It’s up to the other person to accept what you offer. You can’t make them accept it.

Time may heal all wounds, and this wound may not be anything different. Once an apology is delivered and amends are made, don’t belabor the point. If you’ve truly done your best to fix the situation, then you’ve done what you can to offer a sincere apology. Move on.

We all make mistakes, and apologies are necessary from time to time. Sometimes more frequently than at other times! Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings or done something wrong. Take responsibility, take action, make your apology, fix what’s broken and move on. Life’s too short to leave broken relationships and hurt feelings in your wake.

IMAGE CREDIT: Butupa, Flickr Creative Commons

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