exhausted man

We’ve all had to do it at one time or another, apologize for bad behavior, a careless comment, or a misunderstanding of some kind. Apologizing can be very difficult and, for some, it can seem nearly impossible. But saying “I’m sorry” when you are in the wrong is crucial for many reasons when it comes to maintaining relationships. Just muttering the words, however, is not always enough.

When it comes to apologies there are some definite dos and don’ts. The way you say it, the tone you use, your phrasing, and your follow-up are all big parts of an apology that make a difference. A true apology is different than just saying “sorry” and it can often feel pretty uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons many of us do it so rarely and poorly, and therefore never really make amends for the things we have done wrong, whether those things were intentional or not.

When You Should Apologize

Seems straightforward, right? You apologize when you have done something wrong or hurt someone. While that is in essence true, it’s not always that black and white. There is a big difference between apologizing because you have done something hurtful or wrong, and apologizing because someone is upset and blaming you for their feelings.

So the first step in a true and sincere apology is to determine if you really have something to apologize for. If you find yourself apologizing just to appease someone or because they are demanding it, you are allowing yourself to be manipulated.

For instance, the husband who throws a fit because his clothes are folded wrong in his mind doesn’t really need an apology. And demanding his wife show remorse for this and apologize for displeasing him is controlling and manipulative.

If however, a wife spills bleach on her husband’s favorite shirt and ruins it (or vice versa), an apology would be in order.

How You Should Apologize

People often confuse saying “sorry” with apologizing. The really aren’t the same thing. Throwing “sorry” at a situation doesn’t make anything better and it often sounds hollow, sarcastic, or insincere. It can also convey just the opposite. Rather than seeming remorseful, saying “sorry” can make it seem like you are just trying to brush past something, do the bare minimum to satisfy the other person, or like you don’t actually care about what you did and whether it was wrong or not. “Sorry” gets used like a get-out-jail-free card. “I said sorry!” or “Okay, fine, I’m sorry” come with the implied expectation that everything there after that should be fine and there should be no further repercussions.

So what does a true apology include? There are a few important elements that should be part of any real apology.

  • Specific acknowledgement. A real apology is for something specific and includes the acknowledgement of the hurtful behavior. “I’m sorry I was late for dinner. I should have called to let you know. It was inconsiderate of me not to.” Acknowledging that you did something wrong shows respect for the person you hurt and that you understand where your actions went wrong. Using the words, “I was wrong” can be very helpful here as well.
  • Take responsibility. If you have caused pain or a problem, taking responsibility for your actions allows the person you wronged to feel respected and believe your sincerity. “I know you spent a lot of time cooking and my being late without calling caused things to be ruined and wasted.”
  • Plan for action. It may be too late to fix the ruined dinner, but making a commitment not to let the same thing happen again and explaining how you will do that is crucial. “If I’m ever going to be late again I will make a point to text and let you know.”

Following this plan as you apologize will help in repairing the damage you caused. The final piece, however, in a true apology, is much more subjective. Sincerity. A true apology is sincere, and conveying this has as much to do with your tone and mannerisms as it does with the words you use. Your sincerity is ultimately proven by your future actions.

If you sound flip, rushed, angry or sarcastic it really won’t matter what you say. Your tone will say it all and the message will be that you don’t really mean what you’re saying. So when apologizing, be sure you look a person in the eye and use a caring tone that provides depth and meaning to your words.

What to Avoid

Many sincere apologies can go wrong by making a few common mistakes. When apologizing be careful of the following pitfalls.

  • Focus on your actions – not their response. Saying “I’m sorry you were hurt” is not the same as saying “I’m sorry I hurt you.” The first version shows no remorse for your behavior or any indication that you take responsibility for it.
  • Don’t focus on your feelings. Many of us want to tell someone how bad WE feel for whatever we did wrong. This generally comes from a good place, but an apology for something you’ve done isn’t about your feelings – it’s about your actions and the feelings of the person you are apologizing to.
  • Don’t justify or blame. Saying things like “if you had just,” or “I’m sorry, but...” attempts to shift the responsibility off of you and onto someone or somewhere else. Own your behavior, know what led to it, and figure out how to avoid it in the future. That’s it.

There is no doubt that apologizing can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable. But we have all been there and will be there again and again. It’s just a part of life. A sincere apology, however, has many benefits for both the giver and the receiver. It allows the person hurt to begin healing, it allows for forgiveness and it can actually increase the closeness and bond between two people. And, being able to admit when you are wrong actually requires and helps build personal strength and self-respect.

So if you find that you have to eat-crow, or humble-pie, or however you want to phrase it, once in a while you’re not alone. Remember that apologizing with sincerity and grace actually costs you nothing but helps you create a stronger, healthier relationship moving forward. It takes a strong person to apologize – so be one.

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