An insincere apology can actually make things worse! Apologies are simple if you know what to say. Follow these steps to a low-stress apology.
Wondering how to apologize to someone you hurt a long time ago without opening Pandora’s box? Wondering if apologizing will be too difficult or intrusive after so much time has passed? Do you worry about how the recipient might receive your apology?
We can all remember a cringing moment in the past when our actions or words inflicted pain upon another person. The memory fills us with shame. We behaved in a way we now regret. We said. We did. We didn’t do. Maybe we knew it at the time, maybe time has shone a spotlight on our mistake. Maybe the years have withered and exposed our part in an unfortunate event. Whatever the reason, sometimes the thought of making amends becomes inescapable. It is time to apologize.
A good apology, one with good strong bones, is the same whether time has passed or not. The key to a good apology lies not necessarily in the timing but in the apology, itself.
We have all been victims of an insincere apology.
Often, insincere apologies are opportunities to explain ourselves or justify ourselves or excuse ourselves. If the tone of an apology is weaselly, it can leave the recipient feeling more hurt and angry than before. If there is no remorse in the apology, an apology is likely to do more harm than good.
A good apology can be a watershed moment not only for a relationship but for the individuals as well. A good apology can set both parties free.
Many well-intentioned people want to apologize and honestly don’t know how.
A good apology isn’t just about saying the right thing and avoiding the wrong thing; it’s more complicated than that, but it sure helps to know the difference.
Want to know how to apologize to someone you hurt a long time ago? Let’s hit the basics.
If you offended someone yesterday or years ago, it is never too late to apologize, to open the door to further conversations. A good apology is only the beginning. A good apology establishes a future. A good apology fosters healing.
I’m T-Ann Pierce, a transformational lifeand mindset coach, who helps her clients tweak their perspectives so they can begin loving the lives they are living. If you still have questions about how to apologize to someone you hurt, forgiveness and/or moving past regret, contact me at 847.730.7531 or drop me a note at https://t-annpierce.com/contact-me/.
Misunderstandings happen, but apologizing helps mend and preserve your friendship. Saying you're sorry is never easy, but doing so lets your friend know that.
David and I have been studying war and violence since 1979, and David has studied aggression since the early 1970s. During the process of this work, especially our early work on nuclear war and deterrence theory, we became aware that much violence occurs under the rubric of revenge or justice. Wars are justified as "just" and capital punishment is a form of justice in the eyes of some people and nations. Usually, revenge, retaliation, and just wars are forms of getting even after a person, group, or nation has been injured by another person, group, or nation."An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is taken as an axiom, although far too often violence escalates, into an amputation for an eye, or a life for a tooth. While self defense is almost universally accepted as a legitimate reason for violence, getting even is accepted as equally valid by many people and nations.
In our latest book Payback! Why we Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Take Revenge (Oxford), we analyze the biology, ethology, sociology, and history of getting even, and in the last chapter, we describe a series of alternatives. I am going to skip ahead and talk about one of those alternatives, because I think it might be the most practical pathway to stop the cycle of violence and passing pain from person to person. You have my permission to use this in any format, at any time.
What do you do if you find out that you have hurt or harmed somebody, and you want to revive the relationship or even improve it? How do you make a complete, complex, and healing apology that addresses the injured party's pain and possible need for retaliation? I formulated a recipe, called the Forgiveness Protocol, that I gave to my patients, particularly parents who had harmed their children, or couples wounded by adultery. It is based somewhat on the 12 Steps of AA, the Jewish prayers for forgiveness on the High Holy Days, and a prayer before going to sleep in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, called the Bedtime Shema.
Here it is: The Forgiveness Protocol
1. Say you are sorry.
2. Make an inventory of how your behavior might have hurt or harmed someone. Ask that person if the list is complete, and correct your list to reflect a complete account of the costs of your behavior.
3. Say you are sorry again. Be prepared to say this many times.
4. Tell the other person exactly how you understand the costs of your behavior, and allow the other person to vent, elaborate, or reiterate as needed so that the other person really feels heard.
5. Clarify with the other person if the behavior was a simple accident, a mistake, a mistaken calculation of costs and benefits, or a deliberate deed. This part is not easy and takes time and attention. "Thoughtlessness" is one of the most common sources of problems, and may reflect recurrent self-centeredness. Intentional acts of revenge or malice also require great insight to acknowledge.
6. Humbly ask forgiveness. Describe your inner state of guilt, remorse, sadness, grief, anger or whatever.
7. Describe what you have learned from the incident. Show insight and awareness, or yourself and your mistake, and the other person and his/her pain.
8. List what you will do or change to avoid a repetition of the incident.
9. Clarify what penalties to expect if you make a mistake, or transgress again. Discuss what each of you will do to avoid a repetition.
10. Say you are sorry, yet again.
Too many people believe that simply saying sorry one time should suffice, if we have hurt somebody's feelings. However, the legal code is more clear: if you hurt somebody's car, you have to pay the damages. It can be difficult to itemize emotional costs, but to heal, it must be done. In effect, the Forgiveness Protocol offloads the pain and suffering of a victim back onto the perpetrator, by making the perpetrator humble, thoughtful, and indebted, in other words, subordinated, with a need to pay back the injury with considerable amends.
I will say more about Payback! in future blogs. However, I am going on a very long trip soon, and I want the Forgiveness Protocol available to the world right now, so that it is in the public domain, no matter the outcome of the trip. Take it, try it. Put it up on your refrigerator. Teach it to your children. Since we all make dreadful mistakes sometimes, it is important to know how to make a cogent apology. It is one of the pathways to peace, personally and globally.
We've all messed up at one time or another.
Maybe we blurted something hurtful to a friend, lied to get out of an activity we didn't want to do, forgot an important date or failed to perform a vital task at work and covered it up. Or, perhaps we did something way more serious like cheated on our partner, lied to get our way or betrayed someone we cared about.
The moment you realize you really could be caught or are about to be confronted, a cold panic hits you, your heart pounds, your stomach sinks and at that moment, reality hits you between the eyes.
"The secret is out!"
Owning it: Why We Don't
When we make mistakes, it's normal to want to protect ourselves and retreat from the very uncomfortable and embarrassing feelings that come up, especially with those we love, care about or depend on. We imagine how angry and disappointed they will be and we don't want to open ourselves up to their criticism, blame and backlash.
We all possess an ego self-defense system that seeks to guard us from seeing ourselves in a bad light. Add to that the natural desire to escape punishment, avoid a messy confrontation and/or be seen as wrong or as a failure, and you have a cocktail that almost guarantees you'll want to be avoiding, justifying, minimizing or denying -- to yourself, and to anyone else -- whatever it is you've done wrong.
As a marriage and family therapist and author of the book Chatting or Cheating, I see this happen all the time. Many people don't "own up" to what they've done, even when confronted by evidence. Rather than looking at their mistake squarely, admitting they are wrong or have wronged another and apologizing for it, they'll say or do whatever they can to avoid having to take responsibility for the pain they've caused.
The 7 BIGGEST MISTAKES most people often make when caught, confronted or confessing a wrongdoing:
These behaviors are all reactive, self-protective tactics of fear that add insult to injury, create emotional separation, distrust, communication breakdown and deeper damage to your relationship with yourself and the 'injured' party.
STOP Letting Your Fear Run the Show
If you've screwed up in some way -- with your partner, your friend, at work or with anyone you care about -- and you want to save your integrity and your relationship with them, there is a way to apologize that will calm the anger, rebuild the connection and reduce the likelihood of rigorous punishment or retribution later.
The 4 R's of a Kick-Ass Apology
While I'll frame my examples for a relationship mistake, this technique can be used for almost any situation where you want to repair and restore communication:
1. Take Responsibility for your actions.
For an apology to be effective, it must be clear that you accept full responsibility for your actions or inactions. After all, whatever you did, you didn't mess up because your partner (boss, family member, friend) made you do it, you did it through your own poor choices. So it all starts with ownership. "This is my fault. "I made a huge mistake. I really screwed up. I've hurt you. I've hurt us. I am so sorry."
2. Recognize and sincerely acknowledge the mistake you made.
Don't be a drama queen or king by blaming yourself in an exaggerated way. Instead, recognize the harm you have done to your partner's feelings and the stability of the relationship between you. Be constructive, not blaming. "I didn't want to acknowledge the problems we were having in our relationship, and instead, I behaved badly, hurt you deeply, and have now created even bigger problems between us."
3. Express Regret and Remorse about what you've done and the pain it caused.
This is the time to be sincere, sensitive and sympathetic of your partner's pain.
"I know that you've trusted me and loved me. I recognize that my actions hurt and betrayed you and have undermined the sanctity of our relationship."
4. Be prepared to provide Remedy and Restitution to give your partner what they need to feel safe and rebuild trust.
"I love you and will do anything to make it right again." If your partner asks you to remedy the situation, don't debate it or ask for compromises that will make things easier on you. Be sure to follow through with whatever you agree to.
Saying, "I'm sorry" with total sincerity using the 4 R's can lead you down the path to forgiveness, repair of trust and more honest and intimate communication between you.
An Effective, Genuine Apology Holds a Deeper Lesson Within It
Whenever you are faced with a hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment, big or small, here is a good question to ask yourself before responding: "What would my BEST self do? The correct answer will always be... Grow up. Show up. Take responsibility for your actions and do the RIGHT thing.
Learning how to give an honest, sincere apology teaches you how to face the storms head-on, maintain your integrity, take power over your fear and renew the trust in your relationship and within yourself.
That's a lesson with a BIG reward!
Sheri Meyers, Psy.D is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, CA, and author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship. For a free chapter of Chatting or Cheating, please go to:chattingorcheating.com
Connect with Dr. Sheri online:
REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES.
Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.
Join HuffPost Plus
This formula will help your apologies mean so much more. Maybe it's because we all grew up being forced to say "sorry" too, and while it worked well . Gentlemen Speak: Why Guys Hate Being Stuck In the Friend Zone.
“Look, I said I’m sorry. Can we just drop it now?” “I’m sorry, OK? I said I’m sorry.” “All right, fine. I’m sorry. Do you feel better now?”
No, no, and no. The issue isn’t resolved just because you said sorry. No, it’s not OK. And no, actually, I don’t feel better.
When did we get this idea that two simple words had the power to absolve all offenses and heal all wounds? When did we get the idea that we were allowed to let our tongues flap loosely, make selfish decisions, and then simply shut the lid on the whole ordeal with these two little words? We may have been trained to believe that these words did the trick, but make no mistake—there is no magic in them. More often than not, these words do not absolve, they do not heal, and they do not lead to reconciliation and restored relationships.
I know I’m not the only one who thinks this, because a couple months ago, when I wrote an innocuous little post on how I taught my fourth grade class how to apologize “properly,” I was met with millions of readers and hundreds of comments. You see enforcing this method of apology transformed my classroom: Students began to relish in the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, share intent to change, and restore friendships. The most common sentiment from my readers was that this wasn’t just a lesson for kids—it was necessary for adults! Maybe it’s because we all grew up being forced to say "sorry" too, and while it worked well enough in elementary school, it lost some of its magic once our problems grew from breaking crayons to breaking hearts. Or less dramatic things, but you know.
Here is the formula I taught my students:
01. I’m sorry for...
02. This is wrong because...
03. In the future I will...
04. Will you forgive me?
I’m sorry for cutting you in line. This is wrong because you were here first, and it was selfish of me. In the future I will go to the back of the line. Will you forgive me?
Sure, it seems like quite a mouthful for such a small matter, but here’s the important thing: that kid stopped cutting in line. For a perpetual cutter and general troublemaker, four sentences is not a very big investment. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
That’s all good and well for elementary school, but what are we adults to do? Do you really expect me to look my husband in the eye and use these formal, awkward, and uncomfortable sentence stems? I mean, really, sentence stems?
Sentence stems are not evil, I promise. But that aside, I don't insist that adults use them. As cliché as it sounds, it’s really about getting to the heart of the matter.
01. I’m sorry for.../I apologize for.../I feel really bad about...
Start with any of these, or just say whatever it takes to get across the point that you regret something you did. Be specific.
02. This was wrong because.../It made you feel.../I wish I hadn’t because...
Address the consequences that resulted, including the other person’s emotions. The more specific, the better. This will show that you can appreciate the unhappy emotions you caused, and sometimes that is more meaningful than anything else you can say. If you’re introspective (and humble) enough, touch on how it fed some undesirable character trait of your own: pride, selfishness, laziness. It’s optional, but a little extra credit couldn’t hurt.
03. Next time.../In the future, I will...
State a clear plan to change. What’s the point of apologizing if you don’t intend to fight your natural inclination the next time a similar situation crops up?
04. Will you forgive me?
These words are humbling, but powerful. I can’t think of a better way to say it than to ask it plain and simple—with more hope than expectation.
Also consider what you are saying outside of your words: your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Nothing infuriates like an insincere apology, and I think many would agree that no apology is better than a fake one.
You’d think that after teaching, thinking, and writing about it, I’d be an expert at apologizing. But I’m not. I can be such a prideful, self-absorbed person, and I will be the first to admit that I am awful at apologizing. I’m awkward and I can’t make eye contact, and I mumble and break all my own rules.
And so I, too, find myself standing before my husband, readying myself to apologize. This means I am fighting the urge to flee and cold-shoulder it and do that huffy thing where I just stew about making up reasons why everything is really his fault and not mine. He waits, slightly miffed, wondering why I am making him stand there while I glare at the floor. Because you see, this is not a normal thing for us. Me apologizing all sincerely and everything.
I'm so flustered I can’t even think of how to say anything, so because they are the only words that come to mind, I start working my way through these childish sentence stems: “I’m sorry for…” If childish is an adjective for silly or weak, the results are anything but.
It worked. It worked on him—he visibly relaxed, his eyes softened, and he even eked out a little half-smile. And perhaps more importantly, it worked on me. My heart finally admitted to itself that I actually made a poor and selfish choice, and some part of my brain is rewired ever-so-slightly in a better direction for the future.
Was it easy? No. Do I think everyone should use sentence stems? No. You are probably a more articulate, poised, and elegant person than me and won’t need them. But if you happen to fumble with words when it’s your turn to be humble, then you might just want to keep this in mind. When it comes to resolving conflict, there’s a difference between dropping the issue and experiencing true reconciliation. Sometimes, it might just start with something as simple as choosing a better way to say "I'm sorry."
An insincere apology can actually make things worse! Apologies are simple if you know what to say. Follow these steps to a low-stress apology.