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How to Apologize

Person apologizing“I’m sorry you feel that way” is one of those apologies that don’t exactly leave the person falling all over themselves to forgive you.

If you’re looking for forgiveness, or trying to repair a damaged relationship, there are two elements you can’t afford to leave out of your apology.

What and Why?

An effective apology conveys that…

1. You understand what you did, and

2. You know why it was hurtful/inappropriate/downright wrong.

Notice the “why” in the 2nd part isn’t why you said or did the thing you said or did; it’s why it was hurtful or wrong.

Don’t offer explanations for your actions unless you also address the “what” and the “why” above. They’ll be seen as excuses for poor behavior and won’t help your case.

A good apology starts with “I’m sorry I … “

A poor apology begins with “I’m sorry you … ” (Unless it’s “I’m sorry you had to put up with MY … “)

Good apologies

“I’m sorry my tone was so harsh when I asked you to do the dishes. I was frustrated and I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have.”

“I shouldn’t have borrowed your car without asking. I’m very sorry.”

“I’m sorry for my part in what happened yesterday. I really regret saying you were behaving badly; looking back on it, I was being a terrible listener.”

With these apologies, you’re taking ownership of your words and actions, which helps to melt the other person’s defenses.

You’re not attacking them, you’re offering validation. You can see things from their point of view. And you’re demonstrating remorse.

Poor apologies

“I’m sorry you felt I was being rude”

“I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.”

“I know I’m not perfect and I’m sorry.”

The first two admit no responsibility, and the third is too vague. “I’m not perfect” isn’t very satisfying to the listener; what did you DO that you regret? They need to know you know this.

Asking for Forgiveness

After you’ve apologized, you’re not quite done yet. Tell the person how important the relationship is to you. No need to make anything up or overdo it.

Here are some examples:

Spouse or partner: “I love you, and I hate hurting your feelings. You’re so important to me.”

Friend: “I value our friendship, and I hope I haven’t damaged it beyond repair.”

Colleague: “I hope I haven’t ruined our working relationship; I think you bring a lot to the team.”

UPS guy or gal, hot dog vendor, cab driver, etc.: There’s no need to affirm a very casual relationship. If it’s borderline, you can always say, “I’m glad we were able to clear the air.”

When you sense that the ice has melted, only then is it appropriate to ask, “Can you forgive me?”

Requesting forgiveness is totally optional. If you don’t need that sort of official seal, don’t worry about it.

But if you offer a fabulous apology, don’t be surprised if the other person feels compelled to say, “I totally forgive you!”

PS. Are you a parent who wants to apologize to your grown child? You’ll find more tips, insights and advice in the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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10 Responses to "How to Apologize"

  • multnoma
    March 9, 2013 - 2:53 pm Reply

    I think one thing missing is that you don’t get to have expectations of the person to whom you’re apologizing. If you are sincerely apologizing, that sincerity means you acknowledge the other person gets to process everything in their own time.
    And an apology is not a way to go back to where things were before. It’s a way to go forward.

  • Mary Rogers
    April 5, 2013 - 2:31 pm Reply

    Very good article, although I want to point out that there are times when apologizing to another can backfire because they take it to mean that you are always wrong, now and forever more. The more I have tried to make things right the angrier they have gotten. I have just had to give up altogether on some people because they take advantage of my guilt about the past. So would you agree that there are times when it is counter-productive to apologize, especialy when the other person takes no responsiblity for her part of the problem?

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 5, 2013 - 3:06 pm Reply

      Mary, I think it’s a good rule of thumb only to apologize if you genuinely feel sorry. The person you’re describing sounds like somebody it would be very hard to feel bad about not treating well.

  • Mary Rogers
    April 5, 2013 - 3:15 pm Reply

    Good point. I genuinely do feel bad about the past. Now, not so much.

  • Pat Forward
    May 20, 2017 - 1:26 pm Reply

    I have a sister who was hurt by my mother her entire life up to 18 because my mother threw her out. I was the good daughter, loved by both parents. My sister is 70 and has never forgiven my mother and brings her up at every conversation even though she has been dead 20 years. When we have an argument and I apologize (it’s usually me) she says what is spoken, cannot be undone and that she is a very wise counselor. She is a former Rosicrucian and because of their teachings seems to sit in judgment on me permanently. She takes monetary help from me and my brother, but when you do or say something she doesn’t like, you become the unforgiven forever, just like our mother. What can I do, if anything to lighten her brain?

    • Tina Gilbertson
      May 20, 2017 - 3:56 pm Reply

      Pat, it’s hard when loved ones make it difficult for us to love them. It sounds like your sister is one of those people who are so wounded that it’s painful to be in a relationship with them sometimes. You can forgive yourself for any negative emotions you may feel in response to her behavior.

      Wanting your sister to lighten her brain is understandable, for her sake as well as yours. And although trying to change another person is often a fool’s errand, there are a couple of things you can do to encourage change from within.

      Paradoxically, offering her validation exactly as she is can help her see her behavior more clearly than if you were to point out how heavy she’s being. Also, modeling forgiveness, respect, compassion and equanimity may help her develop these herself.

      It sounds like you haven’t given up on her, and that’s terrific. I don’t believe that 70-year-olds are incapable of personal growth. The only reason one might think so is that, statistically speaking, if someone hasn’t changed by that time, they’re not likely to. It doesn’t mean they can’t.

      Thanks for writing. If you choose (and it should be a choice, not an obligation) to help your sister, I wish you both happy results.

  • Grace
    July 27, 2017 - 5:07 pm Reply

    Do you have suggestions for how to apologize when you don’t know why the other person is angry? They are obviously hurt by something I did/didn’t do but won’t say what is wrong.

  • Jennifer
    August 16, 2017 - 12:29 am Reply

    What if it is your child that won’t tell you why they are angry with you and barely talk to you anymore? My daughter is almost 19, she lives at home and suffers from some combination of anxiety and depression. We have been close her whole life. I have loved and supported her in every way I can think of, including getting her counseling whenever she was willing to go. She was attending community college and working and going to counseling when suddenly 6 months ago she broke up with her old boyfriend and started going out with a new boyfriend (who is a few years older (21) barely works, doesn’t go to school, lives at home and has no car). She has now dropped out of school, and barely works. She is angry with me but won’t say why. I have told her that I love her and that if she could tell me why she was angry we could work it out, but she just says she’s not ready to talk to me. Meanwhile, she is quite rude, almost never home, easily upset and offended, has a consistent negative outlook on everything, and takes advantage of me whenever she can especially for things that cost money. I am disappointed, angry and very very sad. I am willing to apologize sincerely if she could tell me what it was for, but what can I do now? Also, how do you apologize if she accuses me of something that is completely and utterly untrue, like emotional neglect? She seems to want to be a victim. — I am making an appointment with a counselor but any other advice would be welcome. Thank you.

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