#67 TRENDING IN Relationships 🔥

I'm Sorry: Step-by-Step Guide on How to Give a Heartfelt and Effective Apology


August 10, 2023

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According to a 2011 survey created by New York ­Bakery Co, “One in eight people polled admitted saying sorry more than 20 times a day,” totaling “2,920 times a year or about 2.3 million times in a ­lifetime.” While Britons constituted the survey sample, many can likely relate to the findings.

“I completely lost track of time. I’m sorry for being late.”

Sorry! I keep forgetting to return this book to you.”

“I’m sorry” has become part of society’s everyday vocabulary. While anyone can say it, not everyone can say it in a way that both acknowledges the harm caused to the receiver and repairs the trust that may have been broken.

Why is Apologizing So Hard?

A study behind the psychology of offering an apology proposed three reasons why it is often so hard to apologize: “(a) low concern for the victim or relationship, (b) perceived threat to the transgressor’s self-image, and (c) perceived apology ineffectiveness.”

It is human nature to constantly think of oneself, which can help explain why apologizing can be difficult—it is about the other person. Giving a genuine apology requires a degree of vulnerability many may not be accustomed to showing because they grew up in an environment where apologizing is perceived as “weak” or “admitting you are wrong.” Regardless of the reasoning behind why people do not apologize, a negative outcome is almost always guaranteed as resentment that can fester into passive aggressiveness.

Sorry, Not Sorry

Research on the effects of different types of apologies defined a sincere apology as “made from the heart in recognition of fault, which requires guilt, recognition of remorse, and acceptance of responsibility.” On the flip side, the study outlined, “made for a purpose such as avoiding punishment or rejection by peers,” “instrumental apologies do not resolve conflicts because violations repeat when there is no acceptance of responsibility or awareness of guilt.” Here are some examples of non-apologies to avoid.

1. I’m sorry you felt that way.

This form of apology is problematic in its emphasis on the word “you” and removes any accountability from the person who caused harm by suggesting it is the other party’s responsibility for feeling a certain way. Instead, this apology should be framed with “I.”

Scenario 1: Alex and Bailey are dating and schedule a reservation at an expensive restaurant for a dinner date, but Bailey arrives thirty minutes late, causing the couple to lose their reservation and making Alex upset.

Insincere apology: “I’m sorry you were upset at the restaurant. I think you are being a little overdramatic.”

Sincere apology: “I’m sorry I arrived so late at the restaurant—I didn’t realize how long it would take to drive here. I know you have been looking forward to this all week. Next time, I’ll check the schedule ahead of time.”

2. I’m sorry, but (not really).

Saying “but” when apologizing suggests that although the person feels regret for their actions, there is an excuse for their behavior, whether it is stress, peer pressure, or fear. One of the most common ways people use this apology is to switch blame onto the other person by citing past examples of their wrongdoings. This type of apology can often leave the harmed person feeling they would be a malicious person if they rejected this apology.

Scenario 2: Jesse is angry at Blake for using his credit card without permission.

Insincere apology: I’m sorry, but I paid for your niece’s birthday present when you forgot last month. Do you not remember?

Sincere apology: I’m sorry. I should not have assumed you would feel comfortable with me using your credit card. Do you want to think about making a joint account?

How to Give a Heartfelt and Effective Apology

Different situations call for various apologies, but one can remember these three steps in giving a heartfelt and effective apology to foster healthy relationships.

1. Know Why You Are Apologizing

This step requires reflection to determine the specific action that hurt the other party. Remember that the impact is greater than the intent and everyone has a different definition of boundaries. For example, while Person A may feel comfortable with other people using their phones, Person B may not want anyone touching their belongings. As a result, while touching Person A's phone may not have caused harm, the same behavior could make Person B upset.

In this step, it is also necessary to decide if an apology is even needed. Here are some scenarios where an apology is unnecessary and could further escalate a situation.

  • Apologizing on behalf of someone else in hopes of diffusing a conflict: You do not need to take responsibility for the harm you did not cause. If you want to show empathy, you can express how you feel sorry about a situation (i.e., their partner cheating, a friend lying, being harrassed) that occurred.

  • Apologizing when you tried your best: Perhaps a student has stayed awake the entire night to complete his portion of a group project after a difficult week of recovering from the cold. While it is a group project, everyone receives individual grades. In this case, a lengthy apology may be unnecessary as no one was harmed in the process, but one could still say, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to complete my portion. I don't want to make excuses for why I couldn't finish, but I've had a hard week, and I hope you all still consider teaming with me for the next group project."

When in doubt about whether you need to apologize, ask. Ask the other person if they felt hurt by your actions.

2. Find the Right Time and Location

Choosing the right time and place to apologize makes a difference in how the injured party may reciprocate. The other party may need time to decompress or want an apology immediately. Apologizing over text could still be impactful, but it may not feel as sincere as face-to-face interaction.

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3. Take Accountability

This step requires avoiding the various non-apologies listed above. Remember that apologizing sincerely displays significant maturity and strength—the strength to admit mistakes and the capacity to grow from them.

4. Ask For Forgiveness

The final step is to ask for forgiveness. This can be as simple as asking, "Will you forgive me?" The person may accept the apology immediately or not at all. If the situation is the latter, reflect on the apology and try again with a new approach at a later time.

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Final Thoughts

Apologizing is essential for any relationship—professional, platonic, or romantic—and is the foundation for conflict resolution. Everyone is bound to encounter a scenario where they must apologize in the future, so knowing how to say "I'm sorry" is a crucial skill to develop healthy relationships with communication, respect, and trust.

So the next time you say "I'm sorry," pat yourself on the back—they are hard words to say.

Jessica Kim
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