Far too many people avoid apologizing because they fear losing face.
They don’t want to feel humiliated or shamed by admitting fault.
But there are effective ways to say sorry that won’t leave you feeling lessened.
1) Know why you’re saying sorry
The biggest mistake many people make in apologizing is to say sorry without really knowing why.
This comes across as both insincere and groveling.
“I’m so sorry, whatever I did to upset you, I guess maybe it was that thing. Whatever it is I feel awful! Please forgive me…”
This is a typical apology that isn’t going to work and is going to make you feel lessened and humiliated.
Instead of just taking a shot in the dark and seeing what sticks, try focusing on your real motivation to say sorry and what you’re sorry about.
If you’re not that sorry or not sure why you should be, try to find out more about what went wrong.
2) Pay attention to timing
If you know why you’re sorry and why you want to say sorry, don’t just say it whenever you want.
Pay attention to the timing here.
If the person you’re apologizing to is extremely stressed or busy, wait for a moment.
Try to apologize as soon as you can, but don’t be afraid to give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts and find a good time to say sorry.
It’s best to do so when the other person has time to actually listen to you, and when both of you have had a day or two to settle in your emotions and thoughts.
The heat of the moment is generally not a good time to apologize because people (including you) may still be in a defensive and tense posture after whatever argument or tension occurred.
3) Don’t just blurt it out
Many people make the mistake of blurting out whatever comes to mind.
I’m not saying you should sit and make notes or put down names, dates and times on your apology.
This isn’t a police inquest (at least I hope it’s not).
But you should avoid just “winging it.”
Saying sorry comes across much more sincere, and is much more effective, when it goes into at least some detail about what you’re apologizing for.
This ties into the next related point:
4) Be specific in your apology
As much as possible, be specific in your apology.
Instead of saying: “I’m sorry about all that stuff back then,” say, “I’m sorry about X and how I did Y, and how I ignored you when you said Z.”
The person you’re apologizing to will appreciate this and your apology will land much more fully.
The one thing to keep in mind here, however, is not to get so specific that you talk somebody’s ear off.
You want to say exactly what you’re sorry for and why.
You do not want to sound like you’re re-summarizing and going into excruciating detail on every single issue between you and this person.
This will waste their time, bore them, and make your apology seem overly dry and academic.
It’s important to show that you’re specifically apologizing and know what you did, but it’s not helpful to be so exhaustive and detailed that you sound like you’re describing a technical manual.
5) Say sorry for real
Saying sorry for real is partly a subjective piece of advice.
What comes off genuine to one person may come off as over-the-top to another.
Use your judgment here:
Consider what the person (or people) you’re saying sorry to value and their temperament.
Are they more emotional or rational?
Will they appreciate you showing a bit more emotion or keeping it fairly rational?
The purpose here is not to be manipulative or fake, but to ensure that your apology is received as well as possible and seen for what it is:
6) Avoid over-apologizing
Apologizing too much is never good.
Not only can it come across as disingenuous, it can lead to getting so worked up and even hysterical that the other person feels you’re asking for attention.
They may even feel you’re seeking attention for how sorry you are.
This is about who you’re apologizing to and what you’re apologizing for, not about how upset you are, personally.
Talking about how upset you are should only be relevant to the extent it relates to what you actually did or said, not to seeking approval for feeling bad.
You feeling awful should be – at most – a side aspect of any real apology.
The apology is about your words and actions, not about how sad you are about your words and actions.
This is a crucial point to remember, because many sink into playing the victim or seeking sympathy when they should be actually apologizing.
It doesn’t usually work and leaves you feeling lessened and weak after!
7) Own up to the damage you’ve done
Saying sorry is never complete if you don’t acknowledge the damage you’ve done.
Even if you don’t agree with the amount of blame you’re being assigned, do your best to own up to your part in the problem.
Maybe you were financially dishonest with a partner in a way that harmed them and hurt their trust…
Maybe you led a company recklessly and ended up ruining its brand…
Maybe you humiliated your friend in front of her family with mean jokes about her breakup…
Whatever the issue is, own up to what happened and be honest about it.
8) Be open to solutions
So you’re sorry, you’ve found a good time to say so and you’ve been specific about why you’re sorry.
Be open to solutions:
This could be ways to communicate better with your partner or boss…
It could be spending more time with your child who’s angry at you…
It could be spending more time with your friend who feels you’ve left them behind…
If possible, think about some practical solutions and approaches to the issue at hand.
If it’s more of something in the past rather than an ongoing issue, think about how you can try to make up for it (even a little bit).
This brings me to the final point…
9) Be willing to make it up to someone
The willingness to make up for a wrong action is the last and crucial part of an apology.
Words only go so far, ultimately.
If you want to feel like you stand fully behind your apology, ask if you can make up for what happened in some way.
Give space if that’s what the person wants; be more involved if that’s what they want.
Try your best to be open to really doing something instead of only being sorry.
This doesn’t mean the damage is erased or gone; it just means that you’ve tried to do something
This is the proactive, solutions-focused aspect of saying sorry that will leave you feeling more empowered and better about saying sorry.
You didn’t just try to say sorry passively and hope it’s accepted: you also offered to actually try to make up for it and repair some of the damage.
This should be an interaction you can look back at with pride that at least you did what you could.
Saying sorry the right way
If you do your best to follow the guidance above, you’ll be saying sorry to the best of your ability.
Don’t feel that expressing an apology is a lessening of your position.
Even if you are admitting to falling short or doing something wrong, your willingness to do so shows your stature and inner strength.
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