How to Apologize & Say I'm Sorry
Wondering how to apologize? How to say sorry and show true sincerity?
Whether you need to apologize to someone you hurt, your girlfriend or boyfriend, a friend or family, it's really not that hard when you know what kind of statements to include, what to leave out, and how to deliver your apology.
When we hurt or offend someone, intentionally or not, it's human nature to look for answers on how to restore the relationship and try to attain forgiveness.
So let's start with what we call the Science of an Apology: a list of ingredients (statements & actions) that when combined produces the closest thing to a perfect apology.
The order of the statements/actions isn't important. What is important to achieve an effective apology is that you include the following, as appropriate, in your apology.
An Effective Apology Should Always Include:
1. A detailed account of the situation
2. Acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done
3. Taking responsibility for the situation
4. Recognition of your role in the event
5. A statement of regret
6. Asking for forgiveness
7. A promise that it won't happen again
8. A form of restitution whenever possible
Now let's break down each of these ingredients and learn how to apologize and say "I'm sorry" in the most effective way.
Provide A Detailed Account
By giving a detailed account of the offense, you are making sure that both you and the other person are talking about the same thing. This also legitimizes the feelings of the recipient by having the person who caused the offense recount the situation.
Keep in mind that you should be as specific as possible and your apology should be focused on the particular event(s).
For example, if you missed an important date, don't say how sorry you are about your general absent-mindedness. Instead apologize for missing that specific date.
Acknowledge the Hurt & Damage Done
Next, by acknowledging the hurt or damage done, you are validating their feelings and the recipient should begin to sense that you understand the situation.
This is important to rebuilding your relationship because it legitimizes their reaction, even if others in the same situation may have reacted differently.
Taking responsibility and recognizing your role in the situation without offering excuses is important. It lets them know that you understand that the event and your actions DID cause them harm.
Don't try to defend yourself or justify the situation or your actions.
The apology is all about THEM and how they feel. It doesn't matter if the actions were intentional or not, the end result is the same. Taking responsibility for your part in what they are feeling needs to be the focus of your apology.
Express Regret and Remorse
Include a statement of regret or remorse along with a promise that it won't happen again.
This is an important step towards rebuilding the relationship right from the outset.
Expressing regret and/or remorse are critical ingredients for any apology. After all, there is no value in apologizing for something that you aren't sorry about or that you will do again and again.
Ask for Forgiveness
Finally, asking for forgiveness at the end of the apology gives the power back to the recipient.
It tells them that you have done what's needed to salvage your relationship by offering a sincere apology and providing whatever form of restitution you can. The next move is up to them.
KEY TAKEAWAY: By carefully including all of the ingredients listed above and applying them to your OWN situation you'll know exactly how to apologize and say I'm sorry.
Now that you have the tools and understand what to say and how to say it, it's time to look at the 'Art of Apologizing'—how you actually deliver your apology.
The Art of Delivering the Perfect Apology
There are two basic approaches for delivery: saying I'm sorry with a verbal apology and writing an apology letter. Each has its own drawbacks and benefits.
1. Verbal Apologies—a verbal apology requires that you be prepared for the conversation that follows the apology AND the recipient's reaction whether it is positive or negative. So know what you want to say. Practice it in front of a mirror. And most importantly, be prepared to think on your feet!
2. Written Apologies—an apology letter gives the recipient the time to think about the situation and your apology, before responding.
With written apologies, you also need to consider how to deliver your letter of apology.
If you normally communicate with them via email then an email apology can be perfectly suitable. Now imagine the reaction if you send that same person an apology via snail mail.
The mere fact that you don't normally communicate in this way will underscore how seriously you're taking the situation and how truly sorry you are. It will have much greater impact.
Don't overthink this, but do consider these types of simple personality traits when you consider how best to deliver your apology.
Differences Between Verbal Apologies & Apology Letters
The most important thing to keep in mind is that a letter of apology gives the recipient something tangible to hold and the time to think over what you've written (and cool down, if necessary).
On the other hand, a verbal apology requires that your sincerity shines through and that you're prepared for whatever reaction and course the discussion takes, regardless of a positive or negative outcome.
How To Apologize: The Recipient & The Relationship
For an apology to be successful, you have to take into account the recipient and your relationship.
What type of personality do they have? What values do they hold? Is the recipient your girlfriend or boyfriend? Is your relationship casual or formal? The answers to these question will affect the format & style of your apology.
For example, in terms of personality, someone who doesn't like confrontation will appreciate a written apology over a verbal one. They're less likely to feel uncomfortable with an apology letter (typed or handwritten) which they can open on their own and in their own time. As a result, they'll likely be more receptive to the content.
The same is true for older generations. If the recipient is an elder, a formal handwritten apology is likely your best bet. It shows respect and effort which in turn helps convey sincerity.
WARNING: Always err on the side of assuming that the person who has been hurt views the infraction as more serious than you do. There is nothing less effective when apologizing than making light of the situation in the eyes of the recipient.
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 close and personal, you can go either way (written or verbal—or both). If you decide that a letter of apology is the right way to go, make sure it's handwritten, not typed, and never send it by email. A verbal apology in this case should be done in person and not over the phone.
Finally, the tone of your apology should be based on the infraction. As a general rule, the more serious the infraction the more serious the tone.
3 Questions To Ask Before Deciding on How To Apologize
To help you figure things out, let's take a look at the 3 questions you should ask and answer...
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? A business contact or co-worker?
You always need to consider who the recipient is.
An apology to a parent will be different from one given to your sister, wife, 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.
It's really not complicated.
As an extreme example, a formal typewritten letter sent by courier to your best friend is highly inappropriate. The same is true for a dozen red roses sent to a business associate with a scribbled apology note attached. Neither of these scenarios would be effective and doesn't show sincerity, even when all the ingredients of a perfect apology are present. You don't want to have to apologize for your attempt at an apology.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Make sure your apology "fits" with the recipient. e.g. More formal and serious with elders and parents... More romantic with girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses... More formal and professional for business situations (even when only the recipient is a business)... More casual but still taken seriously with friends.
2. How close is your relationship?
Is the relationship a romantic one? Is it a close friendship or just an acquaintance? Is it a distant, but important family relationship?
Understanding your relationship plays a large role in the Art of Apologizing.
KEY TAKEAWAY: The closer the relationship the more thought and caring are required for your apology. Conversely, the more distant the relationship, the more formal and detached your apology can be.
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 forgot to do.
A strained family relationship has potential implications far beyond the parties involved—it can cause other family members to choose sides and create significant divides.
KEY TAKEAWAY: The more strained the relationship the more thought and caring needs to go into your apology. This means you need to consider all the ramifications caused by your strained relationship and address these as well.
How To Apologize To Your Girlfriend Or Boyfriend
For intimate relationships, when you're trying to figure out how to apologize to someone you hurt, like a girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife, a verbal apology is always warranted. However with these types of close personal relationships, consider both a verbal and written apology.
We like starting with a written apology that includes an invitation for a coffee/meal/drink etc. where you'll deliver a verbal follow up and discuss the situation now that everything is on the table.
With important personal relationships, especially when you've truly hurt someone, this two-prong approach gives you the benefits of both verbal and written apologies that we noted above, but more importantly it shows how much you care about the recipient and the relationship.
Another consideration when it comes to a girlfriend, boyfriend, lover or spouse, is bringing a little romance to your apology.
Adding a touch of romance can go a long way. It can help remind the recipient how special your relationship is and why you're together in the first place.
Or add some lyrics from a favorite song you both love or some relevant lyrics from our list of best apology songs.
Be creative. Is there something special that they've wanted or hinted about? Is there something out of character for you to offer them as a gift that shows how sorry you are and that you're really trying to make amends?
WARNING: Offering a thoughtless random gift will more often than not reflect poorly on your sincerity. After all, if you haven't taken the time to find something special then how important can the relationship be to you?
If you want to include an apology gift but can't come up with anything relevant or desired by the recipient then go with something corny—flowers, candy, or even a customized T-Shirt that says 'I'm Sorry'—corny works well as a token gesture in romantic relationships.
How to Apologize To A Friend
Apologies between friends should reflect the friendship.
For life-long friends, draw on something in your history together that shows how important the friendship is to you and how sorry you are for putting it at risk.
If the infraction is serious, make sure that your apology reflects that you understand the severity of what you've done—use more formal language and an appropriate setting.
For any friendship that is important to you, a token gesture or gift between friends can be very effective in demonstrating how much you've thought about the situation, especially if the gift is tailored to the recipient and your friendship.
How to Apologize in Person or By Phone (Verbal Apologies)
Just like with an apology letter, 'saying I'm sorry' verbally requires that you think through certain surrounding conditions to help you to determine the best approach for delivery.
With that said, saying I'm sorry in person is a great approach to resolving an issue. It shows integrity, humility and a willingness to accept responsibility all while looking a person in the eye.
As we noted above, a verbal apology does NOT give the recipient time to think about their response. Therefore, you need to plan out how you'll respond to their reaction, whether it's positive or negative. If you aren't comfortable with that, then an apology letter might be a better option for you.
Below are some basic guidelines on how to apologize and say sorry through a verbal apology whether face-to-face or by phone.
How to Say I'm Sorry (Verbal Apologies)
|How||When & Why|
When the relationship is more formal (teacher, colleague, a friend's parent, shop owner etc.) and/or more distant—more often in a business setting.
Letting a person know that you want to meet with them face-to-face for the simple purpose of saying I'm sorry is a respectful and courteous way of mending fences.
Over Coffee or a Drink
When the relationship is close and the mistake is not too severe.
Inviting the person out for a coffee/drink has the same benefit as a scheduled meeting with the added element of an activity shared by friends.
When this is part of your normal routine with the recipient or when you feel the gesture of a lunch invitation feels right.
Usually appropriate when the mistake is a little more significant, or in cases where the recipient considers the mistake serious enough to be very hurt, insulted or angry.
A lunch invitation lets the recipient know that a more lengthy discussion is in order, and that YOU think YOUR mistake is serious enough to warrant the additional time and that a more lengthy discussion is likely.
The gesture of the invitation itself also becomes part of the apology.
When the relationship is intimate or a friendship is strong.
When a long discussion is necessary to convey the many reasons why your apology is important and a more formal evening meeting is warranted.
Emotions can run high depending on the situation and infraction. A restaurant invitation will provide added protection from the negative effects of a very emotional reaction to your apology.
However, take into consideration that the recipient may deserve the right to react emotionally (or tends to resolve issues more effectively through emotions). In that case, the invitation should be for a home cooked meal or delivery.
When the relationship is more formal or not a close personal one. (e.g. parent/teacher, fellow club member etc...)
Picking up the phone and saying I'm sorry in a timely manner is often the best way to make things right again.
Verbal apologies can be equally effective in person or by phone but again, both the circumstances and the recipient's personality should be considered. It's often the better approach, but it may lead to confrontation—depending on the seriousness of the infraction, the amount of pain it caused, and the recipient's personality and character.
Finally, there is one other option that allows you to enjoy the benefits of saying I'm sorry through both a written and verbal apology. It's a hand-delivered written apology. It gives the recipient time to absorb the contents of your letter and can provide a better foundation for constructive dialogue and discussions.
Learn the different benefits of saying sorry in writing and how to write an apology letter.
How To Apologize FAQs
The following FAQs are based on the questions most frequently asked by our readers in their attempt to understand how to apologize.
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.
How to Apologize to Your Girlfriend / Boyfriend?
With all close relationships, especially when you've really hurt someone, it's essential to show the injured party (in this case your girlfriend or boyfriend) how important the relationship is to you.
As we note above in this article on how to apologize, we like the idea of both a written and verbal apology. Your apology letter should come first and include an invitation for a face-to-face follow up where you can discuss the situation now that you've started the process of making amends
If this doesn't feel quite right for you and your relationship then think about other ways to apologize that still reflect how seriously you're taking the matter.
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.
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.
The Art of Apologizing Is Easy to Master
Apologizing for many of us can be a difficult thing to do. However, our level of discomfort is usually relative to the offense.
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.