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7 Ways to Truly Say You're Sorry

How to craft better apologies.

Key points

  • Sometimes, a genuine apology is the only thing that can repair an otherwise broken relationship. 
  • To apologize, one must first acknowledge and demonstrate their understanding of why they hurt the other person.
  • A sincere apology does not attempt to justify wrongdoing.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

There's a reason the song is called "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." Apologizing doesn't come easily or naturally for most people, including me. We often get too wrapped up in our own lives and needs to consider how we might be hurting others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In many of these instances, a genuine apology is not only necessary, but perhaps the only thing that can repair an otherwise broken relationship.

As someone who has always struggled with making heartfelt apologies to loved ones, I turned to experts for advice on how to be better at saying "I'm sorry."

1. Acknowledge what you did wrong.

The first step to making an apology, according to Dr. Elizabeth M. Minei, is to explain the error. The person who made the mistake should acknowledge and demonstrate their understanding of why they hurt the other person. "The reason for this step is that an offer of 'Sorry!' without communicating that you've understood why the words or actions were hurtful results in less of an impact to the hearer," she says.

2. Be sincere.

This seems like a no-brainer, but we live in a culture where superficial and qualified non-apologies are the norm for politicians and public figures. Often, they will say something like, 'I'm sorry if I hurt you,' or 'I'm sorry but...' A sincere and humble apology, according to New York City-based therapist Kimberly Hershenson, doesn't attempt to justify wrongdoing. Instead, it "shows that you recognize your hurtful actions, accept responsibility, and are willing to change."

3. Ask for forgiveness.

When you ask for forgiveness, you give the other person a chance to react and respond. Give them time. Even if they never come around, this is an important gesture that puts the ball back in their court. "It gives them the opportunity to either take it or leave it," says mental health and relationship expert Keba Richmond-Green.

4. Don't think of an apology as winning or losing.

In her practice, marriage and family therapist Carolyn Cole has seen too many couples say they just want to win or be right in a fight. But saying the words "I'm sorry" when you have crossed a line isn't the same as saying, "You're completely right in this situation." Instead, Cole says, an apology simply means that "you value the relationship more than your ego."

5. Don't blame them.

This is the most challenging hurdle to overcome in my own apologies, as I am usually all too eager to point out how someone provoked me into acting a certain way. According to relationship therapist Rhonda Milrad, "saying, 'I wouldn't have if you didn't do this first' sends a message that you are not taking responsibility for your actions." In other words, blaming them pretty much invalidates your apology.

6. Be ready to apologize multiple times.

Sometimes one sorry just isn't enough. To show genuine contrition, relationship therapist Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin recommends repeatedly asking for forgiveness and offering reassurance to loved ones, especially for serious errors. "To apologize and expect life to return to normal because you said sorry is unrealistic," he says. "This contrition will help reduce the anger that the other may be feeling and help rebuild the trust."

7. Tell them how you will change.

Most of us can agree that an apology is meaningless if nothing changes afterward. This is why it is so important to follow up with "how you plan to change your behavior to avoid this problem in the future," says Dr. Jesse Matthews. Most important, you must follow through with the change. It is the only way that the other person will know that you are truly sorry.

But what if they don't forgive you?

This is the hardest part. Sometimes, no matter what you do or say, it won't be enough. In her experience, Minei has found that "a well-executed proper apology is 12 times more likely to generate forgiveness from the recipient." Still, if your apology is not accepted, she advises that you assess the reason why. If the recipient says he needs more time, you might respond with, "I understand, and I am willing to give you more time. I'd like to call you next week — does that sound all right?"

Sometimes, people may hesitate in granting forgiveness because the offered restoration isn't enough, Minei says. In that case, you might respond with, "I'd like to know what I can do to make this right. Can we brainstorm together?" This shows that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make amends.

Finally, there may be times when people flat-out refuse your apology, no matter how well-intentioned or heartfelt. Minei suggests that you can only respond by stating your desire to maintain your relationship. You could say, "I understand that you want nothing to do with me, and I regret that my mistake has led us to this place. I do not want to end our friendship and can only say that if you change your mind, I would be willing to continue our relationship." But afterward, you should leave them alone.

Apologies will never be easy, but hopefully these tips will make them better.

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