We rarely hesitate to mutter "I'm sorry" as we accidentally bump into strangers, but when it comes to the apologies that matter, those two words become much more difficult to utter. Even when the words are said, their meaning is too often compromised by their delivery, as recently examined by The New York Times. As the author noted, "Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism and undermine an important relationship." They called on psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of Why Won't You Apologize?, to examine where we go wrong with our apologies and how we can make it count when we do say, "I'm sorry."
Don't rationalize your mistake. Lerner asserts that when an apology is followed by rationalization, it leaves the affected party feeling unsatisfied and can ultimately be detrimental to the relationship. She makes it clear that using the word "but" is a mistake. The best apologies are concise.
Make it specific about what you did wrong. Focus the apology on how you wronged the other person, and show them you're aware of exactly where you fell short. For example, instead of saying "I'm sorry you feel that way," communicate that you're sorry for what you did, not for how they feel. Be specific, show that you are aware of your mistake, and show true empathy.
Make it clear it won't happen again. A guarantee that a repeat offense is not on the horizon is critical to you both moving forward toward reconciliation together. If there is hovering concern that your word can't be trusted, your apology won't carry any weight. Be direct, be honest, and ensure it won't happen again.
Listen without being defensive. The affected party may need to get their concerns off their chest in order to feel appropriately redeemed. Lerner also emphasizes to let the affected party speak and avoid being defensive. Just speaking their thoughts out loud can be cathartic and will help your apology land solidly. Digest what they say and respond showing you heard them clearly.
Head to the comments to share your thoughts on effective methods for delivering a sincere apology.