7 Small Things to Remember When You Apologize

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After a stressful year when COVID-19 disrupted our lives, nerves are understandably frayed. Whether dealing with pandemic-related difficulties or other concerns, there have probably been instances where you weren’t your best self. You might have some relationships—with relatives, friends, partners, and colleagues—that need healing and reconciliation. This is where figuring out how to apologize comes in handy. No matter who is in the wrong, sometimes nothing soothes animosity faster than saying “I’m sorry,” but screwing up your apology can make things worse.

In A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, Molly Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Boston, delineates the elements of a solid apology. She explains that you should seek to understand the other person’s injury, offer sincere regret, make restitution, and show it’ll never happen again. As you can imagine, it’s easy to falter (especially when hurt feelings or defensiveness are involved). So we’ve asked Dr. Howes and other experts for a few tips to keep in mind when you’re apologizing.

1. Listen closely before rushing to apologize.

Sometimes quick apologies make sense. Say you’re in the market and bump into someone; it doesn’t take much to say “sorry” and help them pick up their groceries. But in more complicated matters, rushing toward an apology can be insincere. So what should you do instead? “First, calmly ask what’s going on to understand how the other person feels,” Dr. Howes tells SELF. “Then shut up and listen, even if it’s uncomfortable.”

Active listening—which involves making eye contact or otherwise making it clear that you’re completely tuned in and really focusing on what they’re saying instead of preparing your rebuttal—helps you truly understand the impact of your missteps. With this insight, you can make your apology more specific, heartfelt, and effective. You can affirm what you’ve heard from the other person and ask clarifying questions as necessary. The attentiveness also helps you keep the same mistake from happening again.

2. Prepare your apology in advance when possible.

Not everyone communicates the same way. If you want forgiveness from someone you offended, whenever possible, connect via their comfort zone, not yours, whether it’s (safely) in person, on the phone, in an epistolary missive,  or via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or or other multimedia. “If it’s in writing, show the draft to someone you trust before sending,” Vatsal Thakkar, M.D., a Connecticut-based psychiatrist, tells SELF. “If it’s in person, write down your apology first to organize your thoughts and get it right.” While forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, this small step can help smooth things over.

3. Be specific and detailed in your apology.

The declaration that you’re sorrowful isn’t always enough. If someone has taken the time to explain how you’ve hurt them, then you can mirror that vulnerability by expressing your regret, explaining why it happened, and showing how you’ll repair the damage.

After you explain yourself, the key is to emphasize that you understand how you’ve harmed the person (which should be clear if you’ve been listening actively) and then follow up with how you’ll avoid making the same mistake in the future. If, for instance, someone is upset that you haven’t returned their calls, you might say: “I’m sorry I was unresponsive. I was working overtime, but that doesn’t excuse anything. You are important to me, and I understand how my actions caused you pain. In the future, I’ll shoot you a text ASAP to let you know when I’m free to call.”

It’s also okay if you can’t quite explain why the transgression happened. “If you have no idea why you screwed up, admit it,” Dr. Thakkar says. Coming clean can help restore closeness.

4. Try not to turn your apology into a debate.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you” or “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think you’d mind” can undermine your apology and make the person you’ve hurt feel invalidated. Doubting someone’s hurt means you’re not taking responsibility for what you did. “Our impulse is to defend ourselves with conditional limited contrition and disclaimers,” Dr. Thakkar explains. Don’t be ambivalent. Be declarative.

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