Messing up and making a mistake that hurts someone else is never a good feeling. You have two choices at that moment when you realize that you truly owe someone an apology (because you shouldn’t apologize for things that are not your fault).
You can be humble and offer an apology and mean it. Or you can ignore the situation and lose a friend, romantic partner, or another type of relationship.
If you choose the first option, to swallow your pride, admit you erred, and prove that you understand what went wrong, here are a few helpful tips. After all, it is one thing to just say “I’m sorry.” It is another to apologize sincerely.
Also, understanding that even a perfect apology might not be enough to save the relationship, is important. People do not owe you forgiveness if they feel it is something they cannot get past.
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” ― Benjamin Franklin
Be truthful about what you are sorry for
The first thing about a sincere apology is just that. You must really believe that you did something that is worth an apology. If you are going to offer up a bunch of reasons for why you did something, and those reasons have to do with someone else’s behavior, then you should stop right here.
If you truly believe that your actions were just and fair, then you have no business trying to apologize because you do not mean it. That doesn’t mean that things didn’t have an impact on your decisions, but you should apologize for the things you are actually sorry about.
If you are sorry that your actions hurt someone else but you aren’t really sorry about what you did (for whatever your reasons are) then apologize for hurting them with your behavior. Be specific when apologizing so it is as sincere as possible. Name what you did wrong and own it.
“If an apology is followed by an excuse or a reason, it means they are going to commit the same mistake again they just apologized for.” ― Amit Kalantri
Use active listening when apologizing
This means that you listen to how the other person feels. Listen to understand, and not to respond. This can be tricky cause most of us want the other person to understand why we did something and can get defensive.
For your apology to really count, you have to validate their feelings and not try and defend your own. If you are apologizing for something you are truly sorry for this should be easier.
Another aspect of active listening that will come in useful when apologizing is to let the other person finish speaking before you start speaking again.
This will likely feel uncomfortable because you will want to be heard too. And that is fair, but make sure the person you are apologizing to has a chance to be heard as well.
“Apologizing does not always mean you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value your relationship more than your ego.” ― Mark Matthews
Recognize when it is time to let it go
If you have apologized and everyone has had a chance to say what they needed to say, then it is probably time to let it go. Unfortunately, you can not force someone else to accept your apology. It is hard to accept that what happens next isn’t up to you.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not anything you can do to earn someone else’s forgiveness. They must give it to you freely, even though you don’t deserve it. And that is why forgiveness is such a gift, and should not be taken for granted.
If the other person feels the relationship is damaged beyond repair then the only thing you can do is respect their decision. Try and see things from their point of view. How you apologize is the only part of this that you can control, their reaction is up to them.
“It is always so simple, and so complicating, to accept an apology.” ― Michael Chabon
Examples of a sincere apology
So, what does this authentic apology look like? Well, let’s look at an apology that most of us might use:
“I’m realy sorry you’re so mad. I didn’t mean to make you feel unimportant because I didn’t let you know I would be home late, but the meeting was critical. I just lost track of time. I apologize.”
Sure, I mean you said sorry, right? You took responsibility for losing track of time. Shouldn’t this do the trick? Not really. Because what the person heard you say was, “The meeting was more important to me. I’m sorry that makes you mad. I wish you would understand how I got caught up in it, and just not be mad at me anymore… I’m sorry.”
Now, let’s try looking at this apology with a few tweaks and see what a difference it makes. Try saying:
“I’m very sorry for not calling and telling you I was running late. It was disrespectful of me to think you would just be here waiting for me. You must’ve felt like I didn’t value your time and company. I realize that I struggle with prioritizing work over my other commitments, so I’ve told my colleagues that if work runs late, I will need to step outside and make a phone call. I also let them know, there will be times when I can not stay. I would love to hear how you feel. I was wrong, and I hope you can forgive me.”
An apology like this might get you one step closer to being forgiven. More importantly, it will help you grow as a person because it requires you to think through what you did, and how you can make sure not to do it again in the future.
If you’re enjoying this article, you might also like our collection of I’m sorry quotes for when you can’t find the right words.
What to do if they can’t forgive you
This is the sad part of apologies. Sometimes, no matter how truly sorry you are for something, or how much you listen to and understand someone else, they might still not be able to forgive you. What you do now, is really where you grow and decide what the future looks like for you.
Examine the things that got you to this place. Let’s say, for instance, you cheated on a partner. What led you here? Was it a lack of communication about what was wrong in your relationship?
If that is the case, then make it a point to open yourself to having tough conversations next time. The outcome might be growth and a better relationship, or it might end a relationship, but if you are going to cheat then maybe that is what needs to happen.
Let’s say you snapped at someone and yelled at them for something that wasn’t their fault. Again, what led you here? Were you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed because you had spread yourself too thin?
Then make a point to learn how to say no, and manage your time better. There is an underlying cause for whatever behavior or event you are apologizing for, and figuring out how to handle that better in the future will help make sure you aren’t always apologizing for the same behavior.
“Apologies didn’t exonerate the sinner, only compelled graciousness from its recipient.” ― Cassandra Khaw, Nothing But Blackened Teeth
What to do if they do forgive you
If you do get gifted with forgiveness, acknowledge the sacrifice the other person has made. They are choosing to let go of their anger and resentment and give you another chance.
If you are apologizing for something small, then this may not seem like a big thing, but if you truly felt you needed to apologize then there was some level of anger and resentment present. Don’t take it for granted, that next time they will forgive you again either.
Next, you have to do all that same introspection and work as if they hadn’t forgiven you. Either way, an apology must be followed by some kind of action. Is there something that needs to be addressed to make sure this doesn’t happen again? You will either do this work now, within the current relationship, or you will have to do it before you enter into another one.
Take a deep breath. Accept that your apology may or may not be accepted. That shouldn’t change the way you deliver it, or the growth that happens from when we are truly sorry for something we have done and choose to learn from it. Remember to be genuine, listen, and understand that you can not control whether or not someone offers forgiveness.
Good luck with your apology. If you have any other tips you want to add, leave them in the comment section below.