The Art of Apologizing

So, it’s finally happened. You messed up. Perhaps you came off too strongly in an argument and hurt someone’s feelings. Or maybe you failed to respect someone’s boundaries and lost their trust. Whatever went down, it has caused a strain on an important relationship. And it really, really hurts.

The good news is that it happens to all of us. Once you’ve gained someone’s trust and respect, it’s easy to lose it. However, if your foundation is strong enough, you can still fix things and move past whatever obstacle blocks a healthy relationship.

Whether the offense was big or small, these tips will help you navigate the complexities of apologizing to anyone — be it a friend, family member, significant other or coworker.

Know When to Apologize:

a man and a woman sit on a park bench looking frustrated Vera Arsic | Pexels

I should start with a disclaimer: not every action requires an apology. Women especially will often apologize for causing minor inconveniences in the workplace, which can make us look weaker or less competent compared to our male colleagues. If you tend to over-apologize, here’s a helpful comic from illustrator Yao Xiao showing how you can use “thank you” as an alternative to “sorry.”

Sometimes, one person is solely at fault for a situation getting out of hand. Never apologize to someone who is toxic, abusive or unfair. However, in most disagreements, both parties carry some of the blame. Apologizing to someone isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t mean admitting they were right. It’s about healing your relationship. And often, the person you’re apologizing to will immediately reciprocate.

So, how do you know when you were in the wrong? There are a lot of gray areas in disputes and it may help to talk it out with the person involved or a third party, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did I lash out and say something I didn’t mean?​
  • Did I cross their boundaries?
  • Did I neglect them when they needed me?
  • Did I say/do anything to belittle or embarrass them?
  • Did I fail to listen to their side?
  • Did I make inaccurate assumptions?
  • Did I attack them personally?
  • Was I objectively wrong about something?
  • Have I been taking advantage of their kindness/generosity?
  • Are they hurt?

If you answered yes to any of these, it could be time to apologize. It’s a painful truth: studies show that your brain’s response to being wrong is identical to physical pain. Even if you were right about the facts, you may still need to apologize for the way you handled it. 

Now comes the hard part: the actual apology. Keep in mind that for major issues, the process of apologizing can take awhile. If tensions are still high, you should always allow for things to cool down so that you both have the rational mind to listen to each other.

Know How to Apologize:

Woman Wearing Blue Top Beside Table Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Below are some tips on how to construct a meaningful apology. Different situations and different people require different apologies, so you may have to mix and match some of these strategies. If you have any experience with love languages, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Gary Chapman’s apology languages to learn more about your own ways of giving and receiving apologies.

Without further ado, here are the steps to a well-rounded apology:

  1. Take full responsibility for your behavior: when researching for his image restoration theory, Dr. William Benoit discovered that the #1 most-effective method of apology is mortification. It sounds drastic, but mortification simply means accepting the responsibility — and consequences — for one’s actions. Despite seeming counter-intuitive, admitting your mistakes will make others see you as a more honorable person. 

  2. Understand why you were wrong: knowing that you were wrong is a good start, but it will take a deeper understanding of the problem to fix it. Once you know what caused you to act in a certain way and why those actions were problematic, you can start working on a plan so it won’t happen again. Don’t know why the other person was hurt? Just ask them. This is your time to listen with an open mind — and without interrupting or arguing.

  3. Express regret for your behavior: show the other person that you truly mean your apology. This will keep you from coming off too shallow. Ways to express regret include speaking honestly about what caused your actions, telling them how the situation made you feel, and letting them know what this relationship means to you.

  4. Offer to make reparations if necessary: this tip may not apply to every situation, and sometimes people aren’t looking for you to pay them back. But, it never hurts to ask. If you forgot a birthday or anniversary, take them out to do something special. If you interrupted them while they were telling a story, let them finish the story. If you were rude to them in front of others, make an effort to compliment them around that same group. What reparations look like should be an agreement between you and the other person.

  5. Make a plan to avoid future conflicts: we’ve all met the person who apologizes for their behavior, promises to change and yet continues to do the same thing. Your apology is meaningless if not backed up by action. This can be hard for most people, especially if it’s a chronic behavior. Some tools to help enforce your plan may include practicing mindfulness, journaling, having an accountability partner, or going to see a therapist.

The Least Effective Ways to Apologize:

Women Sitting Close Together Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Benoit also included some ineffective ways to handle a crisis in image restoration theory. Here are some things to avoid when apologizing to someone:

  1. Denial: if the blame is yours and the evidence clearly suggests so, the other person will usually see right through your lies. This can cause you to lose even more of their trust.

  2. Evading Responsibility: this may mean claiming that good intentions justified the act, or that you didn’t know of your own wrongdoing. The worst example of evading responsibility may be “I’m sorry that you were hurt.” Instead, be clear that you were at fault: “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” Humility is key here.

  3. Reducing Offensiveness: this refers to comparing your actions to others to make it seem like it wasn’t that bad. It may mean claiming that the offense was less serious than it actually was, comparing it to worse actions, or using your own reputation as a good person to mitigate the severity of the action. Use the other person’s reaction to gauge how serious the offense was.

  4. Shifting the Blame: when apologizing, do not put blame on the other person. This is a quick way to start an argument. If they were also wrong, the apology is theirs to make. Most of the time, people will respond to a sincere apology with an apology of their own. If they fail to acknowledge their own wrongdoing, it may be time to reconsider your attachment to them.

After the Apology: 

If your relationship is solid, your apology will be met with forgiveness. However, if the offense was especially serious, it may take awhile for things to return to normal. Always give somebody space if they ask for it. Spend this time sticking to your plan to make sure the situation stays behind you. And if these problems keep coming up, it may be time to seek help from a professional. You don’t need to have a mental illness to attend therapy: most therapists are trained in self-improvement techniques that everyone can benefit from.

Even the most stable of relationships can become strained in the blink of an eye. It only takes a few mistakes to cause lasting effects. Thankfully, most disputes are reparable if you’re both willing to put in a bit of work. Just remember that love — whether between friends, family or significant others — is not an emotion. It’s a commitment.