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5 Steps for the Perfect Apology
Apologising can be difficult. Especially when we have hurt someone we care about. It feels pretty bad to know we’ve hurt someone, regardless of our intentions. Feeling guilty and sheepish for our negative behaviour is sometimes a natural consequence of our actions and there are times when it is useful to sit with that emotion and experience what it means to feel sorry.
By avoiding acknowledging our wrongdoings we put ourselves in an awkward position of denial, rather than being truly honest with ourselves. Not to mention the person we have hurt. Embracing that we are all human and all make mistakes is important here. It is very difficult to go through life without occasionally letting someone down, disappointing someone, or acting in a way that we wish we didn’t. The good news is that we can undo a lot of damage, or at least some of it, with a good apology.
Why should I feel sorry?
What is important when we have come to terms with the fact we’ve got to apologise to someone is to not rush through it. Sure, you want to rid yourself of the guilt and repair your relationship ASAP. But it is important to take time to reflect on the situation. How are you feeling? Can you understand and acknowledge the impact you’ve had on others?
Taking ownership of our actions and behaviours, especially when they’re not our proudest moves, takes real strength. Facing the fact that you’ve made a mistake is crucial. Not only for yourself, but for others too.
If you are too concerned with immediately repairing the damage and trying to restore the status quo, you do not create the time or space to give full acknowledgement of the wrongdoings. Slowing down and understanding what happened from everybody’s perspective is a good way to ensure the same problem doesn’t occur again. Obviously, we’re not saying to take a few days off before you apologise for the sake of reflection (that’s probably a really good way to lose friends). But, giving yourself a few minutes to check in with yourself is almost always helpful
What are the benefits of being sorry?
So, without sounding like we’re encouraging you to make mistakes, there are some benefits to apologising.
Not only do you reaffirm your care and commitment to another person’s well-being, but you also create an opportunity to build emotional intimacy and repair broken trust. Overcoming a negative or unpleasant situation with someone can be grounds for an improvement in the relationship – keep in mind context is very key here!
Offering someone a heartfelt, genuine, and meaningful apology allows them to truly see that you have understood what it means to be them. You are evidencing empathy and sympathy with their position when you do this. Owning up to your mistakes takes confidence, and this can be a really attractive quality if you apologise well.
What if they don’t accept my apology?
Even if the apology is not ‘accepted’, apologising when we know we are in the wrong is important for our self-esteem. It helps us to admit to ourselves that we should have acted differently and keeps our morals in check.
Side note: someone not ‘accepting’ your apology, or not ‘forgiving’ you, is not your problem. You cannot control the outcome of an apology and you do not have the right to dictate whether or not someone forgives you. The only thing you have control over is issuing a meaningful apology. If someone chooses not to repair or continue their relationship with you, that is something you have to let go of and move on from. We are responsible for our own emotions and behaviours, and you do not get to monopolise or control others just because you have apologised.
There are some occasions where an apology is too little, too late. If this situation happens to you, it’s vital that you respect their opinion. Take time to reflect on the causes of the outcome, rather than obsessing over the fact that they are ‘blocking’ the repair of the relationship.
Hopefully, we’re not there yet, and there still might be a chance of moving on – so here are our tips for giving a ‘good’ apology:
How do I give a good apology in 5 steps?
1. Be sincere
A genuine apology should come from the heart and be sincere. There’s little point apologising for the sake of it if you don’t feel sorry for your actions. There are times when you’ll have to apologise for the sake of it (maybe your boss is asking you to) but limiting these to the absolute minimum is ideal. Moving through life as the most authentic and respectful version of yourself is a goal which should allow you to only be giving out apologies when they’re genuine.
Similarly, avoid shifting the blame and take full responsibility for your actions. Making excuses is very different from acknowledging the circumstances in which you acted. Often, we apologise in situations where there is blame on both sides. While it can be tempting to wait for someone else to apologise first, or to feel that they should apologise back to you, try to focus on your apology with no expectations of getting anything in return. This means you don’t need to worry about if they accept or reject it – keep it genuine and honest and that’s all you can do.
2. Explain what happened
It can be helpful to provide some context and explain what led to your mistake. Often miscommunication can be blamed for situations where we end up needing to apologise. Maybe you’re sleep deprived, stressed and have a lot on, which means you acted in a way you wouldn’t usually. I know that I am likely to snap at people I care about when I’m stressed and tired – it’s a very human thing to do.
It’s important to let people around you know the contributing factors to your mistake so they can offer you some sympathy and get a full understanding of the situation. But it is also important to take responsibility for the context and situation as well. Maybe you’re stressed and tired which is why you were unnecessarily blunt, but it is also your responsibility as an adult to manage your stress and the factors known to you that are likely to make you irritable etc. There’s no point blaming being tired as the cause of your behaviour if you’re not going to acknowledge it’s also your responsibility to get enough sleep!
In general, it can help to put yourself at ease by explaining your side of the story and the contributing factors to your actions, but remember this is not the main part of the apology. Someone might not care or want to know why you did what you did, they might just want their feelings to be acknowledged and to be given their rightful apology. Don’t get sucked into making sure they understand you, just focus on giving your genuine apology.
3. Acknowledge the impact of your actions
It can be argued that the main goal of an apology should be the admission of wrongdoing and acknowledgement of the other person’s feelings and ways in which they were impacted. This is essentially all to do with making the other person feel seen and heard.
Showing empathy and understanding of how your actions may have affected the other person is crucial. Consider how you would feel in their shoes and express this. Apologising for doing something wrong without acknowledging the impact it has had on someone is an apology for the self and your morals, rather than for the person who has suffered due to your actions. Your apology is built on the understanding of the pain that the other person has endured due to your actions.
Using phrases like “I understand that my actions impacted you in this way…”, or “I acknowledge that what I did caused you to experience this…”, helps to point out that you are understanding the full extent of their experience of the situation. Remember to use more “I” than “you” phrases, as these can often come across as overly accusatory and might be more likely to reignite whatever conflict you have just been through.
4. Make amends
Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to offer a gesture of goodwill or take steps to make things right. Sometimes it might make sense to address things this way first. For example, if you damage or lose somebody’s possessions, it’s probably common decency to replace them if you’re able to. If you aren’t able to physically undo the damage you’ve done, consider other gestures that would make someone feel appreciated and loved.
Apology flowers are a stereotypical example of this and depending on who and what are involved, these could be appropriate. However, there’s nothing worse than an overly cliché or pointless apology, so don’t waste your own time with gifts or gestures you know won’t be appreciated. Consider the person’s love language and try to offer them something in that category. For example, if they are a ‘words of affirmation’ type of person, consider writing an apology letter with sweet, reassuring words for them. If they’re an ‘acts of service’ type of person, consider doing a household chore for them, or doing something that makes their life easier.
A little gift or act that helps someone feel more loved is only part of the picture. Usually, a verbal apology is all that is needed, and should always be a first step (go healthy communication!), but something else on top can always help boost your chances of repairing the relationship. Ensure that you know they’ll appreciate it first, and don’t overcompensate! Nothing is worse than a grand gesture that is far too late.
5. Follow through
One of the most essential parts of an apology for restoring trust is learning from your mistakes. If you’re granted the opportunity to continue with the person you’ve apologised to, it is essential that you rebuild trust. The only way to do this is to ensure you stick to and follow through on any promises or commitments you make.
Someone might accept your apology the first time, but they are not obliged to if you make the same mistake again. A repeated pattern of not following through on behaviour changes or commitments will destroy trust and push someone away from you. Often the same small problems repeated over a long period will build up and although someone may repeatedly forgive you now, they might decide later that they’ve had enough, and the surprise sudden change may feel unjust to you.
This is why it’s important to only commit to changes that you know you can keep. Learning from our past mistakes is the easiest way to ensure we don’t have to apologise very often, as we are not making regular and repeated mistakes. Sometimes life is difficult, and it may be hard for you to address a particular problem, which is why establishing healthy communication is important. Help yourself and seek external help for problems which are affecting those around you. Ideally, you shouldn’t be apologising often. Handling the circumstances that are creating situations where you behave in a way that eventually requires an apology is a preventative measure we should all take.
A summary of saying ‘sorry’
Remember, apologising is not about making ourselves feel better, but rather about acknowledging and taking responsibility for our actions and striving to repair the damage we have caused. With a sincere and meaningful apology, we can take steps towards healing and rebuilding trust in our relationships. By agreeing to behaviour changes we know we can commit to, we allow ourselves the opportunity to build trust and repair our relationships.
Saying ‘sorry’ and learning to apologise in an effective and meaningful way is a useful skill for many areas of our lives – at work, with friends, family and partners. Giving an honest apology is also a good way to check in with ourselves and bring awareness to our actions and motivations for behaviours. So, keep this in mind for the next time you make a mistake, and remember that giving a good apology is a skill that gets better with time and self-awareness.