To apologize to someone is not always as simple as saying, ‘I’m sorry’. Sometimes, you have to do more to make things right.
Finding the right way to apologize is a challenge
We’ve all been in the horrible, guilt-ridden position of having to apologize when things really go wrong. No matter how heartfelt your apology is, the other person may not accept it. This may be because they’re not ready, or because you haven’t apologized as effectively as you could have. Apologizing is hard and knowing just what to say is even harder.
We have all searched for the right way to apologize, practiced in a mirror, in the shower, in our heads. Luckily, there is now science to help you make the most effective apology you can. Studies have found that an effective apology consists of six key elements. ‘I’m sorry’ is no longer enough.
If you really want to convince the other person of your guilt and regret, you need to put real effort and planning into the apology. If you truly want to make amends, the following formula will help you do it as best you can.
There are two key studies which found these most important elements of an apology in making it as effective as possible.
The studies are similar but not exactly the same. Their differences show the importance of the six elements when given in two different contexts. The fact that both groups highlighted the same elements through different approaches shows their importance in a proper apology.
The first study took 333 adults, who read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department hiring a new employee. At their previous job, the employee had filed an incorrect tax return which understated the capital gains of a client’s income. When confronted, the employee apologized.
Participants were told that the apology contained one, three, or all of the six following elements and asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 (least to most) how effective, credible, and adequate the apology might be.
The second study took 422 students to read the same scenario and was asked to read an actual apology rather than individual elements, then rate its effectiveness.
Although the studies are not identical, they highlight the important parts of an apology in making it effective and to show respect for the other person.
These studies are key to understanding how to apologize properly.
- Express regret – Show that you feel guilty and don’t want the same thing to happen again.
‘I really wish I hadn’t said that’
‘I truly regret that I did this’
- Explain what went wrong – Explain your thought process and the relevant circumstances.
‘I was angry because…’
‘I didn’t understand that…’
- Acknowledge what you are responsible for – Take responsibility for your mistakes.
‘This is my fault’
‘I messed up’
- Declaration of repentance – Show that you have genuine remorse over what happened and want to make a change.
‘I feel terrible and it will never happen again’
‘I never want to hurt you like this again’
- Offer reparations – Offer something you feel may help, and listen to what the other person needs.
‘I promise to…’
‘Tell me what I can do to make this better’
- Ask for forgiveness – Request forgiveness but give the other person time to come around to it.
‘Please forgive me’
‘Take your time but please know that I want you to forgive me’
While all of these elements are important, they are not as equally important as each other.
What is most important is an acknowledgment of responsibility.
Letting the other person know that you accept responsibility for the problem or damage is the key step in apologizing. Accepting the mistake as yours means you are not trying to deflect blame. It shows you recognize where you went wrong and that you don’t want to make the same mistake again.
The second most important step of how to apologize properly is an offer of repair.
When we are hurt, an apology is the first step of healing, but there has to first be a way of fixing the damage. Physical damage is easier to repair, but the emotional damage is a little trickier. You will have to be sensitive to the needs of the person you’ve hurt.
Offer what you think will help the situation and be open to hearing what they feel they need to repair the situation. This can take time, but the initial commitment will help to soothe the situation and make your apology easier to accept.
Expressing regret, explaining what went wrong and a declaration of repentance are tied for third place.
Letting the other person know that you regret what you have done is important. Regret shows that you feel terrible about what happened, that you would change it if you could, and that you are willing to commit to fixing the issue.
When you explain what went wrong, this can help the other person understand your thought process when making the mistake. It might make it more understandable to them, it might not, but helping them understand what went wrong helps the forgiveness process. Acknowledgment of what went wrong show that you have the integrity and competence to understand what happened.
Declaring repentance shows that you understand where you went wrong and that you won’t do it again. Learning from a mistake is the key to repairing the situation. The person you have hurt needs to know that you now know what not to do in the future.
Finally, a request for forgiveness, although found to be the least effective in an apology, is still effective in a good apology.
A request for forgiveness gives the person you have hurt control over the situation. This is important when they are hurting. It’s important not to request forgiveness right away but give them time to think things over and come to you.
Giving control back to the person you hurt helps them feel more comfortable with the situation and more likely to appreciate that they feel respected. It also makes it more likely that they will give you the forgiveness you are asking for.
There are numerous important elements to consider when trying to apologize properly.
These studies have highlighted the six most important elements to make sure you include in all your apologies. However, it is also important that a good apology is given in person, with plenty of eye contact and given completely genuinely. If it is felt that your apology isn’t genuine, there is no way your apology will be taken seriously.
These steps are not a fool-proof way to cheat your way to forgiveness. All apologies must be given 100% sincerely, so don’t try and fake your way through it. Trying to fake an apology will only make the situation worse and hurt the other person more. False apologies will never get forgiveness.
Taking the time to put the effort in and paying attention to your relationship is the only way to make it stronger. What matters is apologizing for the right way. When you are genuinely sorry, the right apology will go a long way in making the situation better.