Apologizing can be one of the most difficult things you do. Most of us have a hard time admitting we made a mistake, and it can be tough to put your ego aside and focus on how another person feels. Whatever the reason, apologizing can help you both heal and move on. However, apologizing the right way may take a little practice. Read on for expert-backed tips on how to apologize to a friend, partner, family member, or colleague.
Elements of a Proper Apology
Sincere apologies, according to Dr. Aaron Lazare, professor of psychiatry at University of Massachusetts, involve four parts, as originally outlined in an article for Greater Good Magazine. 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. Then comes an explanation that demonstrates the offense was not intentional or personal, and should not happen again. There also needs to be an acknowledgment of the offended's feelings (whether hurt, shame, anger, etc.) And 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, in a separate article for Greater Good Magazine. If you aren't sure how to make it right, writes Dr. Carter, 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, and 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," writes 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."
It's also worth mentioning that forgiveness shouldn't be expected after an apology, nor will it come on your timeline. “If they do not accept your apology, don’t fight it, and let them feel their pain, hurt, or anger,” says Joanne Lescher, a certified Non-Violent Communication facilitator, in an interview with Quartz. When you are finished apologizing, “Leave the door open if there’s anything else they would like to share in the future, let them know that you are here for them if they need you, or if there’s more to do or say,” says Lescher.
Experts say once you apologize, it's important to recognize that forgiveness may not come on your timeline. After apologizing, let them feel their pain, hurt, or anger.
"If someone is hurt, a story about why you’re sorry doesn’t erase what you initially said or did. You’ve got to give them time, because the trail of all those painful emotions is not always easy to move on from,” reiterates Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based relationship psychologist, in the same Quartz article.
Ultimately, says Lescher, we say "I'm sorry" all the time, which we learn to do as kids when we're forced to apologize even if we don't understand why. “What we need to learn is how to own why we are apologizing.”
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