10 Tips to Follow for When You Need to Apology to Someone You’ve Hurt


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You spaced on dinner with your best friend. It is absolutely your fault that she waited for you at the restaurant and then had to eat all by her lonesome. You feel terrible.

But when you try to apologize, what comes out of your mouth feels more like a babbling, defensive excuse about how busy you are (and how your sister pulled you in to major gaslighting family drama and how your calendar didn’t ding) than an actual mea culpa. Why oh why is it so hard for us to apologize?

Basically, it comes down to neuroscience – cognitive dissonance, which in this case is a blind spot that makes owning the fact we caused harm to someone else really difficult. “We’re wired to see ourselves as the hero of our own story,” says Marjorie Ingall, co-author, with Susan McCarthy, of the new book SORRY SORRY SORRY: The Case for Good Apologies, which dips into the science of apologies.

“We need to see ourselves as good to function in the world — otherwise, we’d be consumed with bad feelings, like embarrassment and guilt,” she says. So when we do something that makes someone else feel bad, our brains can’t immediately reconcile it with the fact that we’re not mean! We think, “I’m a good person – this must really be someone else’s fault!’” says Ingall.

Besides, truly owning what you did to hurt someone can be scary. “The truth is, apologizing well is a heroic act,” Ingalls says. “When you apologize, you put yourself in a vulnerable position, and give the other person the opportunity to reject you.”

Still, saying you’re sorry in an authentic way is crucial to your relationships. Research finds that something as simple as a direct gaze toward the person you’re apologizing to can help you connect better, which could make forgiveness easier. A sincere and thorough apology, research has found, can even make the recipient feel physically calmer.

Here are 10 tips to help you apologize sincerely and meaningfully.

1. First, decide if you want to apologize.

Don’t apologize if you don’t really mean it. Analyze the situation – maybe you truly think you didn’t do anything wrong, even if the other person is upset. “If that’s the sentiment you feel, stand by it,” says Ingall. “If you’re not sorry, don’t apologize.”

Let’s say you’re late getting home because there was an accident on the freeway, and your spouse didn’t get to their yoga class on time. That’s not your fault, but you feel bad anyway. You can show empathy for their situation, without taking responsibility for it. “I’m sorry the crash made you late for yoga — that must have been frustrating,” would work. “And if there is something you could have done differently, name and own that,” says Ingall. I.e., “The next time I know I’ll be late for any reason I will text you immediately.”

But if you decide you do need to make amends, be selfless. Don’t talk about how bad the situation makes you feel; an apology should be about how the other person feels because of what you did or failed to do. “That makes an apology about you–don’t do that, or ask for forgiveness,” Ingalls adds. “Forgiveness is a gift you may or may not get.”

2. Keep it simple.

Always focus an apology on the exact thing you did wrong. A great example of this is how to apologize over text – the brevity forces you to streamline your message (though if the other person is deeply upset, texting may not be the best idea.) “In a text, you just say very specifically what you’re apologizing for, that you understand the impact of what you did must have been very unpleasant, and why it won’t happen again,” says McCarthy. This kind of easy-to-understand statement is the basis of all good apologies, whether digital or face-to-face. For instance, you could say, “I’m so sorry I forgot your birthday. I would never want to make you feel bad, and I know I did. Your special day is now in my calendar.”

3. Practice beforehand.

Shake off your nerves, and ace your message before you approach the person you want to apologize to. “Speak the apology in front of a mirror,” suggests Ingall. You can also try out what you want to say on an objective friend, and listen to their feedback so that your apology is more effective.

4. Never say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

That phrase puts the responsibility for a problem you caused onto the person affected by it, says McCarthy. The issue at hand is not that they have feelings you don’t think they should have about what you did — it’s that they’re upset about something you did.

sorry

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“I didn’t mean to” isn’t ideal in an apology, either — the fact that you didn’t intend to cause harm is beside the point, at least right now. “Your intention when you apologize is irrelevant – your impact is what’s important,” McCarthy adds. “You can tell someone, ‘I didn’t mean to break your window,’ but the fact is, their window is broken. Apologize for breaking the window, and offer a solution as to how you’re going to fix it.”

5. You don’t have to apologize for existing.

Remember, the only thing you are responsible for is what you have done wrong in this situation – no need to start listing your perceived faults and shortcomings as reasons why you did it. “Also, don’t apologize for anything the other person did,” says McCarthy. Nobody is perfect – never take on more blame than you deserve.

6. Know that an apology can grow your relationship.

If you’ve seriously hurt your spouse, a close family member or your best friend, you may be worried that full-on admitting that could permanently damage your relationship. The opposite may be true, though – a heartfelt apology can bring you even closer. Speak honestly, then listen and learn. “Have a conversation in which the other person can say why what you did really bothered them,” says McCarthy. “At the end of this process, you and your loved one will both feel more understood. There’s a good chance your relationship will end up in a better place.”

7. Listen, and be ready to reframe.

You may be wrong about exactly what the person you are apologizing to feels is the problem. “If you say, ‘I’m sorry I got drunk at your party,’ you could hear, ‘I appreciate your apology, but what I’m really upset about is that you broke my glass bowls when you were dancing on top of my table,’” says McCarthy. Always be open to what you might be missing, and adjust your apology to address the real problem you caused.

8. Make an extra effort.

A handwritten apology can truly show you care. “You can send a letter on really nice paper,” suggests Ingall. This shows the other person they are worth the time it took to craft a special message–it’s a sign of respect.

9. Understand that your apology may not be accepted.

“Everyone has a right to say, ‘I need to think about what you said,” says McCarthy. “Or, the person you are apologizing to may be so upset they never want to talk to you again — this sometimes happens when people in 12-step programs try to say they are sorry for their actions.”

If the person doesn’t respond, Ingall and McCarthy advise making three attempts at an apology. Then leave the person alone. “Don’t follow someone around, still apologizing,” says Ingall. That makes it about your need to be absolved, not their hurt. “Always give the other person an out,” she says.

10. Give yourself a pat on the back for trying, no matter what

Saying you’re truly sorry is always worth the effort, even if it doesn’t work the way you hoped. “An apology is a huge sign of strength,” says Ingall. “It’s brave and generous.” Give yourself credit for doing the right thing – and for trying your very best.

Headshot of Lisa Mulcahy

Writer

Lisa Mulcahy is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including \The Essentials of Theater.\



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