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How to Apologize & Say I'm Sorry

Wondering how to apologize? How to say sorry and show true sincerity?

Apologizing to someone you’ve hurt, whether it’s your girlfriend or boyfriend, a friend or family member, is not as difficult as it may seem. Knowing what kind of statements to include, what to avoid, and how to deliver your apology can make the process easier.

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When we inadvertently cause pain or upset to another person, it's human nature to want to mend the relationship and seek forgiveness. Similarly, when our actions are deliberate and we're consumed by remorse, the urge to make amends is just as strong.

To help us achieve forgiveness we turn to what we call the Science of an Apology—a list of statements & actions that when combined produce the closest thing to a perfect apology.

The order of the statements is not important, but it's crucial to include all seven points outlined below. Restitution, which is the eighth point, is necessary only when there is physical damage or in business situations.

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

Here's a breakdown of each statement to help us understand how to apologize and say "I'm sorry" in the most effective way.

Provide A Detailed Account

Offering a clear account of what happened ensures mutual understanding. This validates the other person's feelings and helps clarify the situation. Be specific and focus on the particular event.

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

Acknowledging the hurt or damage done means you recognize the pain or harm caused while showing that you understand their perspective. This validates their reaction, even if others might have reacted differently.

Take Responsibility

Accept your role in the situation without making excuses. This demonstrates that you recognize your actions caused harm. Avoid defending or justifying yourself—it's about their feelings, regardless of intent.

Express Regret and Remorse

Show genuine regret and remorse and promise to avoid repeating the mistake

This step is crucial for rebuilding the relationship and starting the healing process. 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 other person.

It signifies that you've sincerely apologized and are willing to make amends and offer a form of restitution if appropriate. The next step is theirs to take.


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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).

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

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

Apologizing effectively requires taking into account the recipient and your relationship with them. To do this, you should consider the personality type of the recipient, their values, and the nature of your relationship with them. This will help determine the format & style of your apology.

For example, someone who doesn't like confrontation may prefer a written apology over a verbal one. Similarly, for older generations, a formal, handwritten apology is likely to be the most respectful and sincere approach.

WARNING: Always err on the side of assuming that the person who's been hurt views the situation as more serious than you might think.

Generally speaking...

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 understand how to apologize appropriately, let's take a look at three questions you should ask yourself and answer:

1. Who are you apologizing to?

Consider the recipient of your apology. Are they a family member (if so, which one: mother, father, sister, brother...) a spouse or lover, a good friend, business contact or co-worker?

Apologizing to a parent is different from apologizing to your sister or wife. Similarly, apologizing to a customer, co-worker, professional contact, or boss each requires a different approach. As a rule of thumb, your apology should be more formal and serious with elders and parents, more romantic with girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses, and more formal and professional for business situations.

The key is to make sure your apology "fits" with the recipient because that will demonstrate sincerity and sincerity is critical to having someone accept your apology.

2. How close is your relationship?

Understanding the nature of your relationship with the recipient is important. Is it a romantic one, a close friendship, or just an acquaintance?

Your relationship plays a large role in the art of apologizing. The closer the relationship, the more thought and care 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?

Consider how serious the mistake was and what effect 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. A short heartfelt apology message to your love can help remind them how special your relationship is and why you're together in the first place.

You don't need to stop there, think about including a romantic poem, quotes on apologizing, or even sending a bouquet of flowers—flowers are a classic apology gift for a reason.

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.

A quote by Tryon Edwards

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

Scheduled Meeting

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.

Over Lunch

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.

Over Dinner

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.

By Phone

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.

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.

The Art of Apologizing Is Easy to Master

Apologizing for many of us can be difficult. 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.

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