How to Apologize—and Why You Should
APolologies are how we smooth conflict and mend relationships, prove our character to others, and coexist as imperfect beings. Yet few of us know how to do it well – or have the courage to do so.
“A good apology builds bridges. It heals wounds,” says Marjorie Ingall, co-author of the new book Sorry, sorry, sorry: the case for good apologies. “It’s really hard too. Saying sorry is a bold act because we overcome all of our own animal instincts and self-protection when we do it.”
Sincere apologies can be hard to find. Everyone wants to feel like a good person, which can lead to defensiveness—we speak out about what we’ve done wrong to keep our self-esteem alive. “We immediately turn to excuses, justifications, and reasons why the victim provoked us,” says Karina Schumann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who has researched the barriers to an apology. “And if we can convince ourselves of that, then that may — in our eyes — eliminate the need for an apology.” Or maybe we don’t care enough about fixing a particular relationship to apologize, she adds. We might also overestimate how awkward it will be to deliver the apology or assume it won’t work.
But sincere apologies bring a lot of benefits to both the person delivering the message and the person receiving it. They help strengthen relationships and boost trust, both of which can reduce stress and improve mental health. “It’s really unhealthy to hold on to shame and guilt and not try to process your emotions related to negative behaviors and harmful actions that you’ve committed,” says Schumann. Also, some research suggests that those who apologize may experience improvements in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as increased activation of empathy-related brain regions that set the stage for forgiveness and reconciliation.
When you’re ready for your mea culpa moment, here are eight keys to a good apology.
Don’t rush it
Apologies are better late than early, says Cindy Frantz, a social psychologist at Oberlin College who has researched how timing affects the effectiveness of apologies. “What we found is that there can be a great temptation to apologize quickly,” she says. “It’s an effort to end the whole incident and move on. And that benefits the perpetrator, but does not meet the needs of the victim.”
You can’t make an effective apology until the injured party believes you fully understand what you did wrong, she says. “If the apology comes before then, it will not be considered sincere.”
Be open to different formats
If you’re dealing with a relatively minor offense, you should apologize via text or in person, Ingall suggests. Email often works well for more serious situations. “And if you really screwed up, there’s something very powerful about a stamp and nice stationery and a pen,” she says. Just don’t apologize via social media, which can be humiliating for everyone involved.
Another rule of thumb: “If you’re apologizing to someone, you have to give them an answer,” says Ingall. “You don’t want anyone to feel trapped by you—they need an escape route.” For example, don’t block someone’s way out of their work cubicle or lean in the car window so they can’t drive away.
Start with specific words
Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Instead, opting for phrases like “I’m sorry” or “I feel bad about what happened” often results in non-apologies that “have the vague contours of an apology, but don’t really get there.” says Ingall. (See: The classic “sorry if you were offended” or “sorry, but…” approaches.) Also, saying you regret something puts you and your emotions at the center of the conversation when it directly addresses the feelings of the person who has been wronged.
Why would you apologize when it’s both your fault? This is exactly the question that many people struggle with, says Schumann – and there is certainly often a double responsibility. “But I want to encourage people to really focus on taking responsibility for the parts of the conflict that they are responsible for,” she says. Avoid the urge to do so
phrase it like this: “I’m sorry I did that, but you did that too.” The tendency to do this is “normal because we want to contextualize our behavior and draw attention to the fact that we are also hurt.” , she says. But save it for later in the conversation.
Emphasize certain words
Always choose your words carefully when apologizing, advises Lisa Leopold, associate professor of English at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, who has analyzed the language of public apologies. Avoid conditional clauses like “if” or “may”—as in “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” suggesting there may not have been any victims. “But” is another misstep. It undermines your message, she notes.
It’s important to use “I” or “my” when apologizing, adds Leopold. For example, say “Sorry for my outburst” instead of “Sorry about the interaction this morning.” And always use the active voice. “When you say something like, ‘I apologize for what happened,’ well, ‘what happened’ is something that you have no control over,” she says.
It can also be helpful to use reinforcers such as “very”, “really”, “sincere”, “deep” and “extreme”. These can “improve the language of an apology,” Leopold notes.
Be clear about how you plan to fix things
One of the core elements of an apology is reparation. Sometimes, says Schumann, this can be done directly: Have you broken your favorite wine glass? Buy them a new one. Coffee spilled on her dress? Pay for dry cleaning.
If that’s not feasible, consider more symbolic forms of repair. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings with a critical comment, make it clear that you were wrong. “Sometimes you can’t fix what happened, but you can reflect on how the relationship evolves,” she says. “How can you communicate a promise to behave better?” It is important for the other person to “hear that this is not going to continue… and they can trust you to improve your behavior in the future.”
A variety of things can help make it clear that your words are from the heart, says Schumann. First, the apology should be commensurate with the seriousness of the offense. If you apologize for the infidelity and say, “I’m sorry, love,” you won’t seem very sincere, she notes; However, these words might be appropriate if you are 10 minutes late for dinner.
You should also aim to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and show that you understand that what you did was hurtful to them and the consequences they felt as a result. Schumann advises that it can be helpful to listen first and ask questions about their point of view. “That might allow them to really understand what they’re going through and therefore be able to offer a more authentic, victim-centric apology.”
Don’t expect forgiveness
An apology is a start. In the case of serious crimes in particular, the injured party often needs time and space to heal, and it is important not to put them under pressure. It can be tempting to follow up with something like, “What’s up? I apologized – how much longer do you intend to keep this up?” Instead, Schumann suggests reporting this: “I understand that this will not fix everything, and I want to keep doing what I can to please you . I hope that even if you’re not ready to forgive me, you’ll be open to working with me to bring us to a point where we can move forward.”
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