How to Craft an Effective Apology
You screwed up. Now you have to own it. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we hurt people – intentionally or unintentionally – with our choices. Apologizing isn’t always easy, but it helps restore trust in a relationship when you’ve harmed the other person. It’s a crucial life skill that can help you across your life – in romantic relationships, friendships, social interactions, school, and work.
Sometimes saying sorry just isn’t enough. Sincere, effective apologies take balls. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable, to be accountable and own up to say you f*cked up, and to accept the consequences of your mistakes. It’s uncomfortable, and it can feel embarrassing. We’re conditioned to think making mistakes reflects poorly on our character, but not apologizing – or half-assing an apology – is way worse. Being defensive, prideful, and willful does not show much for your character. Apologizing, on the other hand, is proof of your good character!
Not All Apologies are Created Equal
Let’s look at how many of us apologize at times. Some apologies suck, and they don’t help our situation. Not every statement with a “sorry” can be categorized as an apology. Here are some top offenders:
- “Sorry you feel that way.”
- Or its variations like, “Sorry if I upset you” or “Sorry you took it the wrong way.”
- “I’m sorry. Now you need to apologize to me.”
- “Sorry, but you deserved it.”
None of these are apologies. Why? Because they fail to accomplish the number one reason apologies exist – to heal. You are not apologizing for the other person. You are apologizing for yourself. Shifting the blame to the person you hurt is ineffective and unproductive. You need to demonstrate that you’re taking responsibility and that you’re empathetic towards how they feel.
These phrases are incapable of healing the person you hurt. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back – Apologies are not about you. They’re about the person you hurt and the relationship you have with them. When you keep this in mind, you’ll be more objective, and much better at crafting an effective apology.
Building Blocks of an Effective Apology
When we fail to apologize effectively (or at all), the other person builds resentment. At the very core, apologies are validating, with no blaming and no defenses. The key, though, is intent. Deliver an apology that shows you mean it, or don’t deliver your apology just yet.
“I’m sorry” or “I apologize” needs to be included in your apology. Present your apology authentically and explain why you’re apologizing. Do it as soon as you realize you messed up. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for the other person to recognize that you’re remorseful. If you’re not sorry, then don’t apologize yet!
Taking responsibility for something you are at fault for restores the dignity of the person you hurt. It’s hard to move forward in any interaction if the person who is hurt feels like it’s their fault when it isn’t. Likewise, apologizing restores your own integrity. It demonstrates that you’re upholding morals of honesty and authenticity.
You need to empathize with the other person and acknowledge that you understand how you made them feel. Put yourself in their shoes. Saying something like, “You started it,” is an excuse and a defense – it won’t move your relationship forward and should not be part of an apology. Using I-statements and their variations (my, mine, me) communicate that you are being responsible, rather than shifting blame to the hurt party. Ask yourself how you made this person feel, and how their day/life was changed by your behavior.
While we’re talking about empathy, it’s also critical that you listen to the other person. Let them vent, explain how they feel, and be attentive to what they’re saying. It can be difficult to just listen and not react, but keep Benjamin Franklin’s advice, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse” in mind.
Be very specific about what you’re apologizing for. Did you say something offensive? Did you forget something important? Specifically apologize for that. When we hurt someone, they remember specifics – what we said, what we did, and how they felt. Speaking to generalities won’t help you come across as authentic, and it doesn’t fully show that you’re being accountable.
Don’t overgeneralize that you’re a “bad person” – demonstrate that this specific problem can and will be fixed. Recognize that you were responsible, that you hurt the other person, and what happened.
Be open to solutions
Offer to take action. Ask what you can do to make it better. Creating an action plan is an important demonstration of how serious you are about not repeating your mistake. Listen to the other person’s suggestions and what they need in order to make things right again.
Explain that you will not repeat the behavior. This final step is key in rebuilding trust and repairing the relationship. Whatever commitment or solution you make, make sure you follow through. The best apology is changed behavior!
It can be embarrassing to hurt someone, and we may feel guilt and shame about it. After you’ve crafted your apology using the steps above, acknowledge that you’ve done all you can do. Be compassionate with yourself, accept that you’ve made a mistake, and move on.
Helpful Apology Phrases
I shared some things you should never say while apologizing so here’s a list of some effective phrases to include! Since your apology will be specific (and follow the guidelines above), these are some things to throw in there to reinforce your sincerity, but the specifics will be unique to your situation.
- “I made a mistake.”
- This is MUCH better than saying something general like, “Mistakes were made.” A generalized statement like that does not assign responsibility, and will not help progress the situation.
- “I’m sorry for __________.”
- It’s specific (when you fill in the blank). It acknowledges responsibility. It implies you’ve recognized your mistakes.
- “What can I do to make things right?”
- This shows you’re serious about making changes and repairing the damage. Remember, though, if you say you are going to do these things, you have to follow through for it to mean anything!
Some Tough Love
Just because you present a well-crafted, sincere apology does not mean it will be accepted. It’s one of the consequences of your actions. Ultimately, what’s important is that you are accountable for your own actions. Apologizing using the tips above makes it more likely that your apology will be accepted. Best of luck!