The six (and a half) steps to an effective apology

The six (and a half) steps to an effective apology

March 23, 2023

If you can’t remember the last time you apologized: congratulations, you are perfect — or at least you believe you are. For the rest of us, apologizing is a common, if difficult, part of life.

Among the earliest lessons imparted to children is the art of saying sorry, yet these skills don’t always transfer neatly to adulthood. Relationships are messy and both parties often have some level of culpability. However, the biggest obstacle to apologetic bliss isn’t a complicated argument — it’s self-protective motivations.

Good apologies are notoriously hard to come by, partly because of an inherent resistance to making them in the first place. People are hesitant to apologize because they falsely believe it affects how outsiders perceive them, says ‪Amy Ebesu Hubbard‬, a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa School of Communication and Information. Some view apologizing as admitting defeat and thereby lowering their social status; others think it tarnishes their reputation. On the contrary, a successful apology can bring people closer together and can improve the apologizer’s standing with the receiver, Hubbard says.

There are a number of other psychological barriers preventing people from apologizing, according to Karina Schumann, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Chief among them is a desire to see yourself as a good person — and for others to consider you morally just, too. When someone is upset with you, it’s common to shift into self-protection mode and to trick yourself into believing you didn’t do anything wrong. “A lot of the time, people don’t apologize simply because these self-defensive processes kick in and they come up with all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t apologize,” Schumann says. “They push blame onto the other person, they think of excuses, all the situational factors that caused them to behave the way they did.” Another impediment to apologizing can be a lack of empathy or concern for the relationship with the wronged party.

Saying sorry effectively boils down to a few simple steps that can be easily replicated and adapted to different situations, from accidentally bumping into a stranger in a crowded bar to insulting the entirety of your best friend’s life choices. The key to successful apologies doesn’t lie in following a formula, though: It’s true sincerity.

The six (and a half) components of a good apology

According to Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, the authors of the book Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, successful apologies contain six (and a half) components:

  1. Say you’re sorry or that you apologize. Actually use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
  2. Name or specify the infraction you’re apologizing for.
  3. Show you understand why your actions were harmful and hurtful, and the effect it had on the other person.
  4. Don’t make excuses, but offer an explanation if needed.
  5. Say what you are doing to ensure this situation won’t happen again.
  6. Offer to fix what’s broken — whether that’s buying your aunt a new lamp you knocked off a table at Thanksgiving or offering to spend more time with a friend who feels neglected.

The half-step is to listen to the person or people (these steps work regardless if you’re apologizing to one person or a group) you’ve wronged. This is about their experience and emotions, not yours.

“They’re more or less ranked in the order of importance,” McCarthy says. This isn’t to say listening is the least important, but sometimes the hurt person may not want to extend the conversation beyond hearing you say sorry.

Each component can be adjusted to fit the seriousness of the apology. You don’t need to explain what you’re doing to better yourself after accidentally stealing your neighbor’s trash can. But you’ll want to show you understand why punching a wall in a rage is not healthy.

Saying the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is non-negotiable in any decent apology, big or small. Avoid terms like “I regret” or “I feel really bad about what happened.”

For bigger infractions, explicitly saying what you’re apologizing for and why it was wrong helps you take accountability. Be specific and use active language. Think: “I’m sorry I accused your sister of stealing money. It was crappy of me to make assumptions based on judgments.” and not “I regret the events that occurred which caused you to feel upset” or the other gobbledygook commonly found in brand, YouTuber, and notes-app apologies. “If you just dropped a cup of water, you don’t need to explain to that person,” McCarthy says. “But in most cases, it’s really good to specify.”

Even if you aren’t sure why someone is angry with you — but you know they are — apologize for what you can, Hubbard says; that might sound like “I can see that you’re upset with me and I’m very sorry for hurting you.” Piecemeal apologies also apply to situations where you’re being told to say sorry even if you feel you were justified in your actions. Ingall recalls a situation in which her child was asked to apologize for yelling at another student after they were provoked by a bully. “I felt like Max was 100 percent the wronged party and only reacted,” Ingall says. “We figured out that Max could say, ‘I’m sorry for disrupting the class.’”

Explaining why you acted the way you did can add important context, Schumann says. Victims of wrongdoing often see the transgression as purposeful, unfair, and intentional, according to research. On the other hand, the wrongdoers tend to see their actions as provoked and justified. A non-defensive account of your motivations can help the person you’re apologizing to see that you weren’t acting maliciously. Schumann suggests saying something like, “I want to let you know why my behavior has been like this over the past few weeks just to help you understand where it was coming from. It’s no excuse and I should’ve done better.” Be careful to not make excuses, Ingall stresses. In their book, Ingall and McCarthy write that “I didn’t mean to,” “Some things just fell through the cracks,” or “I knew you’d never understand” are all common excuses.

Describe how you’ll never make the same infraction again with specificity: “I’ll set a reminder in my phone next time so I don’t forget,” “I won’t use that language anymore,” “I’m going to therapy.” It’s not enough to say “I’m taking responsibility for my actions.” How will you take responsibility?

While not applicable in all situations, making up for a bad deed can look like offering to buy a new white rug after you spilled red wine all over it, or publicly correcting the record regarding the embarrassing claims you made about a friend.

These intense and personal apologies are what researcher Yohsuke Ohtsubo calls “costly apologies,” where the wrongdoer is willing to do whatever it takes to repair the relationship. Victims perceive these apologies as being more sincere because they know “that you value the relationship with them more than the cost you pay,” says Ohtsubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo, “which also informs them that you are not likely to do the same transgression again.” The “cost” incurred has less to do with monetary value but instead is focused on the worth of the relationship.

What not to do when apologizing

There are a few hallmarks of a bad apology. Ingall and McCarthy suggest avoiding language like “Sorry if …” (“Sorry if you were offended”), “Sorry but …” (“Sorry, but I had every right to yell”), and “Sorry you …” (“I’m sorry you took that the wrong way”). Don’t include words like “obviously,” “regrettable,” and “unfortunate” either.

Any statement that confers blame on the recipient is a bad apology. “It’s very normal for us to want to point out how they’ve hurt us as well,” Schumann says, “because oftentimes these things aren’t clean-cut in terms of who hurt who.” If you feel like you are also owed an apology, save that for a separate conversation.

By apologizing, you acknowledge your words and actions have caused pain — so don’t minimize the other person’s hurt in order to assuage your ego. “It was just a joke,” “I didn’t mean anything by it,” or “I don’t know why it was such a big deal” are bound to make the other person feel worse, Schumann says.

When and how to apologize

More important than the timing and means of your apology is its sincerity, Hubbard says. If you’re not ready to say sorry and mean it, you can apologize multiple times, Hubbard says: Once to clear the air of any awkwardness, and later when you truly feel repentant.

Don’t worry about where the apology lives within the conversation — focus on being sincere and empathetic instead. A commonly cited study found that when apologies came after the wronged party had a chance to share their feelings, they were more effective. One of Hubbard’s studies showed that starting a conversation with an apology can springboard a deeper conversation. Whenever you apologize, be prepared for any range of emotions, and to listen (or for the other person to disengage completely).

In general, the most sincere apologies take place face-to-face or over the phone. The other person can hear your voice, your tone, and read your body language. Text apologies can be utilized if you typically interact with the person you’ve hurt that way. Messages on social media can be an effective way to apologize to someone from your past you don’t communicate with or see in person. Mass apologies on social media should be avoided at all costs.

“It is far healthier to reach out with your actual human voice to your friends who you have actually harmed and say, ‘I’m sorry, I love you, I miss you. Can we talk about this?’” Ingall says. “You will find that to be endlessly more fulfilling than the Notes app apology that, B-T-dubs, everybody ends up messing up anyway.”

When not to apologize

There are seemingly endless situations calling for an apology — plenty of ways to screw up, piss people off, or offend — but a few circumstances when you don’t need to change a thing. Women and girls, who are famously maligned for apologizing too frequently, should stop apologizing for apologizing, Ingall says. “We have to be really careful about not over-policing women’s speech and not telling women that the way they talk — whether that’s vocal fry, or rise in inflection at the end of the sentence, or apologizing — is wrong,” she says, “because sometimes there are things we just got to do to make it through the day and to make our life easier.”

Never apologize for existing, taking space, and living your authentic self. That’s the version of unapologetic worth aspiring to.

“It’s appropriate to apologize for things that you do or say,” McCarthy says. “You don’t have to apologize for who you are.”

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