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For many of us, apologizing can be one of the more challenging things we do in life. This could be because most of us have a hard time admitting when we made a mistake, and it can be tough to put our ego aside and focus on how another person feels. Fear of rejection is another reason we find it so difficult to say those two little words—especially in the relationships that mean the most to us. After all, emotional vulnerability doesn't always come naturally.
Despite the difficulty it sometimes poses, apologizing can help both you and the person you hurt to heal and move on, and hopefully, repair any damage that may have been done. And while apologizing the right way might take a little practice, it can be the difference that saves or breaks any relationship. It's a valuable life skill that we should all work towards mastering—one that could contribute to an overall less angry (and healthier) society, according to one study. So get those negative feelings off your chest by swallowing your pride and saying "I'm sorry" and meaning it.
Read on for expert-backed tips on how to apologize to a friend, partner, family member, or colleague (and how not to).
Elements of a Proper Apology
Sincere apologies, as Dr. Aaron Lazare outlines in his book On Apologies, involve four parts. And while every apology may not require all four, the framework is helpful to recognize and process a range of emotions both parties go through.
- According to Dr. Lazare, a proper apology first acknowledges who the offender is and who the offended party is. In other words, you must fully accept responsibility to both yourself and the person you hurt.
- Then comes an explanation that demonstrates the offense was not intentional or personal, and should not happen again. This explanation should give insight into how the offense happened, not sound like an excuse—this step may not be appropriate for every apology. Be sure to avoid blaming your friend.
- There also needs to be an acknowledgment of the offended's feelings (whether hurt, shame, anger, etc.), and an expression of remorse, shame, and humility. Without this step, you'll likely find it difficult to restore the relationship.
- Finally, reparation must be offered. "Maybe you create an opportunity for the person you embarrassed to regain credibility. Or perhaps you admit your mistake to others, too, as a part of the reparation," offers Christine Carter, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. If you aren't sure how to make it right, ask the offended party what you can do to make it better.
To illustrate those four points, an effective apology might look like this: "I sense that my comment hurt your feelings and that you feel misunderstood. I had a particularly stressful day at work today, and while that isn't an excuse, I know it's important to you to feel heard. I'm sorry, and I will work to be more present in our conversations in the future."
How Not to Apologize
On the other hand, there are several things you shouldn't do when you want to figure out how to say sorry to a friend you hurt. Note that the art of apologizing involves taking responsibility. Never apologize as a way to "shut someone up" when they are saying you hurt their feelings, even if you don't think you did. "When in doubt, leave the explanation out; trying to explain away our actions can seem like we’re being defensive, or making excuses," says Dr. Carter.
Avoid saying things like:
- "I'm sorry if I hurt you." (If, in this case, means you do not take responsibility.)
- "I'm sorry you feel that way." (Again, you're not taking responsibility here. Instead of saying this, probe to find out more about why the person is upset.)
- "I'm sorry you think I did that."
These types of apologies are classic non-apologies, and they can do more harm than good. Author and expert in human behavior Beverly D. Flaxington explains that "In fact, they fall into what might be termed as the passive-aggressive category—you know the person is hurt, you know you did something to contribute to it, but you don’t really feel compelled to own it."
Most people can detect a fake apology from a mile away, and in many cases, non-heartfelt apologies can do more harm than good. Before you dismiss their feelings, think about any past infractions—a history of minor letdowns could pile up without you realizing it.
A Word on Forgiveness
It's also worth mentioning that forgiveness shouldn't be expected after an apology, nor will it come on your timeline. "Don’t expect that because you say it, the other person immediately anoints you with their forgiveness," warns Flaxington. "The priest in the confessional may do this, but few human beings are able to." When you are finished apologizing, “Don’t have an expectation of them—leave them be," continues Flaxington. "Do your best to build the bridge, but then allow their healing to be what it will."
"Above all, deliver on any promises you make," says Dr. Carter. "When we feel guilty or embarrassed, sometimes we over-correct in our attempt to gain forgiveness." She suggests that if the person you hurt is asking for something that you can’t give, be honest and tell them that. Let them know you will think about what you can give to make it up to them.
What an Apology Should Accomplish
According to Dr. Lazare, an effective apology should satisfy at least one out of the following seven psychological needs of the person you offended.
- Restore the dignity of the person you hurt.
- Affirm that both you and they have shared values, and agree that what you did to hurt them was wrong.
- Validate that they were not responsible.
- Assure that they are safe from a repeat incidence.
- Give them a sense of reparative justice, which happens when the person you hurt sees that you are held accountable in some way, be it emotionally or through an act of contrition.
- Compensate the person you hurt through reparations.
- Ensure dialogue in which they can express their feelings to you and grieve as necessary.
While this sounds very technical, it all boils down to the act of a sincere apology. Once you've done the work on your part, you can rest easier knowing you've done everything in your power to repair the relationship.
If your friend isn't ready to forgive and forget, Flaxington says to try your best to let it go. "Beating yourself up about it isn’t going to change anything. Use the opportunity when practicing being sorry to become more self- and others-aware."
McCullough ME, Pedersen EJ, Tabak BA, Carter EC. Conciliatory Gestures Promote Forgiveness and Reduce Anger in Humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jul 29;111(30):11211-6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1405072111
Freedman G, Burgoon EM, Ferrell JD, Pennebaker JW, Beer JS. When Saying Sorry May Not Help: The Impact of Apologies on Social Rejections. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1375. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01375