How To Apologize Sincerely & Effectively

How to apologize sincerely? How to make it effective? What's the best approach to take? How do you truly convey how sorry you are?

When we hurt or offend someone, intentionally or not, it's human nature to look for answers on how to restore the relationship and attain forgiveness.

Art supplies and Laboratory Beakers


An effective apology is both a Science and an Art

The Science of an apology, is basically the formula—what ingredients to combine under the right circumstances to produce the perfect apology and reaction; that is to be forgiven.

It's like a recipe. You gather the exact ingredients and follow the directions to create the perfect dish.

Apologies work the same way.

You gather your thoughts, know exactly what you need to say and what points you want to make, then combine them to create the elements (or ingredients) of a perfect apology.

Now that the dish (our apology) is prepared we need to figure out how to serve (or deliver) it. That's what we call the 'Art' of apologizing.

Chart on the Art and Science of Apologies


The Art of apologizing is in how you apply the Science—how you actually deliver the apology.

And, how you deliver the apology depends on who you're apologizing to and the relationship that you have.

A formal typewritten letter delivered to your best friend, or red roses sent to a business associate with a scribbled apology note attached won't be effective and doesn't show sincerity, even when all the ingredients are present.

A best friend would rightly expect you to apologize to them face to face while a business relationship usually requires a more formal approach.

We also need to consider email apologies as they become more and more common.

How to apologize effectively and let someone know how truly sorry you are comes down to how you combine these two elements (the science and the art).

apology icons

In order to figure out the ideal approach to take for your situation, you'll need to consider and answer the following three 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, your 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, friend, or lover. The same is true for business apologies. Apologizing to a customer, co-worker, professional contact or boss will each require a different approach.

2. How close is your relationship with this person?

Is the relationship a romantic one? Is it a close friendship or just an acquaintance? 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 the relationship?

How serious was the mistake and what effect has it had on your relationship?

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.

Delivering An Effective & Sincere 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.

A written letter and a person speaking with a short list of differences between verbal and written apologies


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.

There are obviously dozens of different ways to apologize and which one you choose really depends on you and the relationship.

How To Apologize Effectively FAQs

Three steps to an effective apology


Where do I start for an effective apology?

Take the time to reflect and appreciate what you did wrong. Look at it from all sides, especially the side of the person you offended.

Gather your thoughts, take full responsibility, and use words that are clear and precise. Be absolutely honest, don't exaggerate or skew any thing for any reason—it will undermine your apology's sincerity.

Which is more effective, a written or a verbal apology?

Choose the one that plays to your strengths. An apology letter is a better option if you're generally nervous or get hyper, don't do well with face-to-face confrontations, and have difficulty expressing yourself on the fly.

A verbal apology is best when you are comfortable expressing your true feelings without letting your emotions get in the way. Both can be effective when done properly so go with the one that feels better for you and your situation.

How do you show sincerity when apologizing?

Make sure the apology clearly demonstrates your understanding of why the recipient was injured by your actions, and how much they were hurt. Saying "I know you're hurt" is different from "I know how angry and betrayed you feel..."

The former shows a general understanding while the latter tells them that you've put yourself in their shoes and given thought to the consequences of your actions.

What should I avoid for an effective apology?

Don't use qualifiers or suggest in any way that you're sharing responsibility. Never use the word but. Avoid trying to evoke sympathy or demand forgiveness.

Visit our apology DOs and DON'Ts pages for some quick tips and secondary considerations.

Also consider checking out this Berkeley article on The Three Parts of an Effective Apology which sums up nicely why simply saying "I'm Sorry" isn't enough for a sincere and effective apology.

apology icons

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.

Learn what you need to include when apologizing in The Science of an Apology.

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