There is a right way to apologize, and there are apologies that just make things worse. Don’t be one of those people who always fall in the latter category.
An apology done the right way is sincere, acknowledges the mistake you made, the other person’s pain that resulted, and your desire to make things better. A good (dare I say a great?) apology requires a certain dose of reflection and humility and when done properly, it shows the other person and yourself that you are not only taking responsibility for your actions but also have learned the lesson and vow to do better next time.
Here is how you can achieve that proper apology step-by-step.
1. When you should apologize and when you should not
Sometimes, you react in the heat of the moment and do or say something hurtful that you clearly regret after. But sometimes, you don’t need to apologize. Sometimes, you just feel guilty for sticking to your guns and not giving in to what someone else expects of you.
It can be hard to make the distinction but, in both instances, it has to do with the way you deal with and manage guilt.
Hopefully, the following questions will help you figure out if you should apologize for your behavior and how to do it the right way. Or if you should have another type of discussion, one where you would not apologize but rather expose your grievances to your interlocutor.
2. Reflect on your behavior first and why you did or said what you did
Before you decide whether or not you should apologize, take the time to reflect on your behavior first to truly understand your motives, where you were right, and where you were not.
What exactly did you say or do that was problematic? Is it something you said? Something you did or didn’t do? Is it the way you said it?
Did it come from a negative place? Anger, fear, shame? These negative feelings that you carry, are they about you or them? (Let me give you a hint, very rarely, I almost want to say never, are other people responsible for the negative feelings you carry in your heart).
Has this been boiling up for a while or was it an “in the spur of the moment” type of reaction? If you’ve been carrying resentment for a while, then perhaps it’s time for a different type of conversation.
3. Is it possible that your reaction hurt the other person? Is it what you wanted to achieve?
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment, but do it seriously. Now, if you were in their position and somebody had done to you what you did to them, how would that make you feel?
Would you feel hurt? Angry? Rejected? Unloved? Is this the way you want the other person to feel?
If the answer to that last question is no, then you should apologize and do it properly. (If the answer is yes, then perhaps you should stop hanging out with someone you wish to harm? I’m just saying).
4. What message were you trying to convey when that happened?
Maybe you were feeling hurt too, or misunderstood, rejected, annoyed, angry, etc., at the time of the incident and your message came out all wrong? It’s okay. Shit happens to good people too and nobody is perfect.
Were you trying to tell the person to give you some time or to back away? Or that you really disliked their behavior?
Figure out exactly what they were doing at the time of the incident, and how this was affecting you. This step is necessary for understanding your own reactions and ensuring you do things differently in the future.
5. Is there a way you could have conveyed that message better without hurting the other person or being rude?
Could you have addressed the issue privately? Or let a few minutes (or hours) pass to give you time to cool off before addressing it? Could you have adopted a less accusatory tone? A less aggressive one? Were the insults and swear words necessary?
6. If you are not sure, you could simply ask them
If you are not sure what you did wrong, how it made the other person feel or how to fix it, you can just ask them.
You could simply say: “I feel like I’ve done or said something earlier that might be causing you pain but I’m not sure what or why this is hurting you. Could you help me understand so I know how to fix it?”.
So often people just prefer to avoid the issue altogether and this is a bad idea.
Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to address every single issue that arises between two people. But in some cases, you must address them and apologize when necessary. If you feel like there is a growing gap between you and the other person, then there is definitely something that should be addressed that is not being discussed.
Now, if you think, or know, you have hurt the other person and you think you have behaved poorly, then do apologize.
However, if your reaction was triggered by something the other person did or does regularly, then perhaps you should consider having a serious conversation about this.
7. Don’t delay the apology
“Don’t let the sun go down upon your anger”
I first read this quote in L. M. Alcott’s Little Women and it stuck with me ever since, although to be fair, this is originally a Bible verse.
Regardless who said it first, I strongly adhere to this and it’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever came across. Unfortunately, most people do not practice this philosophy, quite the contrary, and it’s a shame. Delaying, pretending nothing is wrong often makes things worse. Way worse, and much harder to fix.
8. Look the other person in the eyes when you apologize
Apologizing the right way means taking responsibility for what you’ve done and showing up for the consequences. Don’t put all your energy in trying to avoid the other person or doing the least effort. Some people do that and it can be very hurtful.
Perhaps a text message might do the trick if it’s a small offense. But in my experience, the bigger the mistake, all the more reasons why you should directly speak to the person. I mean in-person or on the phone.
If you decide to do this in person, stand up straight with your shoulders back, and look the other person in the eyes. And don’t mumble!
9. Actually say that you are sorry
Often people think they are apologizing, they say a lot of words but never do they actually say: “I’m sorry”. You must say it. It is not the other person’s job to figure out or guess that you are sorry. And frankly, if they are mad at you or if they are hurt, having to guess what you are saying might just make them even more upset, or perhaps even less predisposed to forgive you.
You must say the words.
10. Say what you are apologizing for
Don’t simply say “I’m sorry”. Say: “I’m sorry for screaming at you in front of your whole family at Thanksgiving dinner”. If you are not able to recognize and acknowledge exactly what in your behavior was wrong, how will the other person know that you understand what the problem is?
You shouldn’t apologize just to apologize. You apologize because you know you’ve made a mistake and don’t want to make that same mistake over again.
11. State clearly how your behavior was inappropriate, and how it has hurt the other person or caused them prejudice
To go back to the previous example, you could say:
“I’m sorry for screaming at you in front of your whole family at Thanksgiving dinner. Now I realize that this was completely disrespectful. I have embarrassed you in front of your whole family and that was wrong”.
You can elaborate if you want, but you get the idea.
12. Tell the other person what you could and should have done differently
If you are apologizing, it’s probably because you did something not so ideal, and your behavior caused someone else pain. This means that there is another way, a better way, you could have done things. What is that other way? Tell them.
To continue with our example, you could say:
“I’m sorry for screaming at you in front of your whole family at Thanksgiving dinner. Now I realize that this was completely disrespectful. I have embarrassed you in front of your whole family and that was wrong. I thought about it and realize now I should have waited until we were back home to bring it up, or I could have talked to you privately upstairs”.
13. Don’t lie or say things you don’t mean
The “right” apology is a sincere one. Refrain from saying things you don’t mean or think you should be saying. This guide’s objective is to help you apologize sincerely, not lie about it.
14. Stick to the message
The other person might have questions or could press you for more. This is normal, but do not deviate from the message you are trying to convey: that you are sorry, what you did was wrong and you understand why it was wrong.
Avoid justifying yourself. Perhaps there are extenuating circumstances to your behavior but thread carefully. It could open a whole new can of worms. So, stick to the message and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself if necessary.
15. Do NOT say “I’m sorry BUT…“
This one is the worst! Every time I hear this I cringe and become more upset. But it seems like that is how most people apologize.
“I’m sorry but I was tired/you upset me/I was having a bad day/I had this or that…” is simply you blaming something else, something external, for your behavior. “I’m sorry but…” is not an apology. It’s only you trying to justify your actions and not taking responsibility for them.
If you decide to apologize for your behavior, then do it. But you either take full responsibility for your actions or don’t apologize at all.
16. Now is not the time to address the other person’s faults
From my experience, I think it’s best to separate the two: your mistakes and the other person’s. Perhaps you behaved the way you did because the other person did something to you first. Perhaps you screamed at them in front of their whole family at Thanks Giving dinner because they had been nagging you in front of said family for the past two hours. Or two years.
And this should be addressed. But at another time. After you have apologized for your part of the equation or when everyone has calmed down. That is if you decide to apologize (see part one, Before apologizing).
17. Don’t expect the other person to say something right away
Just because you have acknowledged your mistake and apologized for it does not mean that the other person ought to react or reply right away. Perhaps they are still hurt, perhaps they are trying to digest what you’ve just said. Perhaps they feel guilty too for their own actions and are not sure yet how to respond.
Don’t rush them.
If you must, you could ask: “do you forgive me?”. But if they are hesitant to respond, don’t push it or act angry or hurt.
Finding the right way to express how sorry we are can be so challenging that some people avoid it altogether. But I encourage you to confront these situations and apologize when you are wrong. And if you are going to apologize, apologize in the right way.
Not only will it help the other person feel better, but it will have the same impact on you too.