How to apologize effectively and let someone know how sorry you are comes down to how you combine these two elements (the science and the art) and tailor them for your situation.
There are obviously many different ways to apologize, but the ideal approach for your case depends on your answers to three straightforward questions.
1 | Who are you apologizing to?
A family member (if so, which one: mother, father, sister, brother etc.?) A member of your extended family? A spouse or lover? A good friend, girlfriend or boyfriend? A business contact or co-worker?
You always need to consider who the recipient is. A personal apology to a parent will be different from one given to a sibling or lover, while apologizing to a customer, co-worker, or business contact often requires a more formal approach.
2 | How close is your relationship with this person?
Is the relationship a romantic one? Is this a business relationship? Is it a distant, but important family relationship?
Understanding how close your relationship is will play a large role in the Art of Apologizing.
3 | How strained is your relationship as a result of the mistake? How serious was the mistake?
Apologizing to a close family member who has been seriously damaged because of something you said or did requires a different approach from one in which a friend has been hurt because of something you said or forgot to do.
Two basic ways to deliver an apology
You can write an apology letter or deliver one verbally. In either case, make sure that all the ingredients (or Science of an apology) are present.
Keep in mind these two key points when thinking about how to apologize and deciding which way to go.
1 |A written apology gives the recipient the time to think about the situation and your apology, before responding.
2 |A verbal apology requires that you be prepared for the conversation that will follow the apology based on the recipient's reaction whether it is positive or negative. So be prepared to think on your feet!
If the person is more of an acquaintance than a friend, and the infraction is minor, go with a more formal approach. Write a brief apology letter and send it to them by regular mail or email.
If this is a close relationship and the infraction is major, then take them out for a coffee, lunch or dinner and apologize in person.
If the relationship is intimate, you can go either way (written or verbal) but think about romantic ways of delivering the apology. If you decide that a letter of apology is the right way to go, make sure it's handwritten and not typed and never send it by email. A verbal apology in this case should be done in person and not over the phone.
Visit our apology DOs and DON'Ts pages for some quick tips and secondary considerations.
Apologizing for many of us can be a difficult thing to do. However, our level of discomfort is usually relative to the offence.
Most of us have no problem saying I'm Sorry when we accidentally bump into someone on the street. In fact that type of situation is so common to us that the ensuing apology has become a reflex—an automatic response with natural timing. But what happens when we have to think about apologizing?
When we start to think about the apology, we also think about the behavior or actions that led up to it. As a result, our thoughts, emotions and pride become part of the mix. We feel embarrassed and a sense of shame or discomfort with the situation, and that blocks us. We begin to think that we don't know how to apologize.
The good news is, that if we messed things up all the time, we would know exactly what to say and how to apologize—just like we do when we bump into a stranger. The fact that we aren't sure how to say sorry, means that most of the time our behavior is pretty much on track.