A meaningful apology is one that communicates what I call the three R’s–regret, responsibility, and remedy.
A statement of regret for having caused the inconvenience, hurt or damage. This includes an expression of empathy toward the other person, including an acknowledgement of the inconvenience, hurt, or damage that you caused the other person. Having empathy for the person you hurt or angered is the most important part of your apology. When you truly have empathy the other person will feel it. Your apology will wash over him or her like a healing balm. On the other hand, if you don’t have empathy your apology will sound and feel empty.
An acceptance of responsibility for your actions. This means not blaming anyone else for what you did and not making excuses for your actions but instead accepting full responsibility for what you did and for the consequences of your actions.
A statement of your willingness to take some action to remedy the situation–either by promising to not repeat your action, a promise to work toward not making the same mistake again, a statement as to how you are going to remedy the situation (go to therapy) or by making restitution for the damages you caused. Apologizing to your spouse for having an affair is insulting unless you offer reassurances: It will never happen again because we will seek therapy, because I’ve quit my job, because I’ll take you on my business trips.
Regret, Responsibility and Remedy
Unless all three of these elements are present, the other person will sense that something is missing in your apology and he or she will feel shortchanged somehow. Let’s take a look at each element separately.
The desire to apologize needs to come from the realization that you have hurt someone or caused them some difficulty in their life. While your intention may not have been to hurt this person, you recognize that your action or inaction nevertheless did hurt or inconvenience them and for this, you feel bad. This regret or remorse needs to be communicated to the other person.
“I am so sorry. I know I hurt your feelings and I feel terrible about it.”
“I deeply regret having hurt you.”
“I am truly sorry for the pain I caused you.”
For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your actions or inaction. Therefore, your apology needs to include a statement of responsibility.
“I’m sorry, I realize that by being late I made us miss the first part of the movie.”
“I’m sorry. I know it is difficult for you to trust people and my lying to you hasn’t made it any easier. I shouldn’t have lied no matter how afraid I was of your reaction.”
“I’m sorry. You have every right to be angry with me. I shouldn’t have said those words to you.”
“I’m so sorry. There’s no excuse for my behavior and I know I hurt you deeply.
While you can’t go back and undo or redo the past, you can do everything within your power to repair the harm you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology needs to include a statement in which you offer restitution in some way, an offer to help the other person, or a promise to take action so that you will not repeat the behavior.
“I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you. Next time the movie is on me.”
“I’m sorry for lying to you. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“I’m sorry for talking to you like that. I’ll work on letting you know when I don’t like something instead of holding it all in and then exploding like that.”
“I’m sorry. I’m going to go into therapy so I can understand why I act the way I do.”
Intention and Attitude
The two most important underlying aspects of an apology are your intention and your attitude. These will be communicated nonverbally to the person to whom you are apologizing. If your apology does not come from a sincere attempt on your part to express your heartfelt feelings of regret, to take responsibility for your actions and to right the wrong you’ve caused, your apology will not feel meaningful or believable to the other person.
In order for the person you have wronged to feel this sincerity, your desire to apology must come from inside you. You should never attempt an apology just because someone else tells you it is the right thing to do, because you know the other person is expecting it, or because you know it will get you what you want from the other person. Apologies that are given as mere social gestures will likely come across as empty and meaningless. Apologies that are mere manipulations to get what you want will likely be spotted for what they are.
Make No Excuses
Once you begin to reconstruct what led up to the wrong you did, it is natural to begin making excuses for your actions. While there may be valid reasons for your behavior, there is no excuse. It is important that you realize the difference.
Owning up to the wrong you’ve done isn’t easy–especially when the person you’ve harmed has also wronged you. But no matter what you’ve done, most people respond positively to honesty. Admit your mistake, acknowledge that you messed up. By owning up to the fact that you harmed someone, by refusing to make excuses for your actions, you will likely engender respect from the person you’ve harmed. By apologizing for your actions you will likely engender forgiveness.
Before You Apologize
In order to make a meaningful apology you must first complete the following steps. Otherwise, your apology is likely to be weak and ineffective.
Step One: Admit your offense to yourself.
No whitewashing, no excuses, no blaming others. Just brutal honesty.
Step Two: Take time to consider the ramifications of your action or inaction
What effect do you feel your actions or inaction had on the other person? How did you behavior affect the person’s life?
Step Three: Put yourself in the place of the person you wronged and try to understand how he or she felt.
Try looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective and imagine how he or she felt. Was he or she angry? hurt? disappointed?
Step Four: Forgive yourself
Apologizing to the person you hurt or harmed will no doubt help you to forgive yourself, especially if he or she is able to forgive you. But ironically, you will need to begin the process of forgiving yourself if your apology is to be effective. If you approach the person you wronged feeling overwhelmed with guilt you will be distracted from where your focus needs to be–on the person you wronged and their feelings.
Real guilt is a necessary social emotion. It is our conscience’s way of preventing us from doing things we will later regret. Our society would fall apart if we were incapable of feeling real guilt. Real guilt is felt when we have violated our own moral code, gone against our own value and belief systems.
If you do something on your own volition, without coercion or intimidation that you know is morally wrong, then you will suffer real, healthy guilt. The purpose of this guilt is to discourage you from doing it again.
While real guilt can serve a positive function in our society, holdingonto your guilt feelings does not serve a positive function. The most effective way of relieving your guilt and of forgiving yourself is to make certain that you do not repeat the offense again.
Step Five: Forgive the person you are apologizing to
You will find it impossible to make sincere apologies to others for your side of a conflict unless you have forgiven them for the harms they have caused you. Even if you don’t bring up the other person’s mistakes directly, your ill will toward him or her will come through in other ways.
A dear friend of mine, I will call her Rose, has dedicated her life in the past ten years to her spiritual growth. One of the most important aspects of this growth has been to make amends to all those she had conflicts or misunderstandings with in the past. To her, this meant that she sit down in person with each person she felt she had hurt in any way. Throughout the years she had meetings with her grown children, her ex-husband, her brothers, and some of her friends. At each meeting she apologized to the person for her hurtful behavior or attitude and asked them to forgive her.
These were difficult encounters for my friend who admittedly tends to be extremely proud and often defensive. At times it took all the courage she could muster in order to actually go through with it. But she felt she was being guided by God to make these amends and felt it was important for her spiritual growth and so she persevered even when she doubted her strength.
Recently, she told me that she had come to the realization that she needed to make amends to her ex-husband’s new wife, Margaret. Even though Margaret had maliciously gossiped about her and tried to turn Rose’s children against her, Rose was now painfully aware that she too had acted hurtfully and maliciously toward Margaret. In response to Margaret’s behavior toward her, my friend had stooped to her level and had repeatedly said negative things about her to others. I was absolutely astounded that Rose had come to this place in her spiritual growth. And yet she wasn’t doing it without trepidation. “This is going to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” she told me. “I feel it is important to do, but there is a part of me that continues to resist it. I keep thinking of the horrible things she’s said about me in the past and I get angry all over again. I just hope my anger doesn’t come up while I’m trying to make amends.”
My advice to her was that she needed to work more on forgiving this person, otherwise her amends would not be effective. While some people need to focus more on releasing their anger, in Rose’s case this didn’t seem to be working. Instead she found that praying for Margaret helped her get past her resentments. For several weeks prior to their meeting she asked God to bless her former enemy. She also prayed for help in removing her anger. By the time she met with Margaret she was far more forgiving and was able to apologize for her part in the relationship without being distracted by any resentments. Much to her surprise, Margaret accepted her apology wholeheartedly and apologized in turn for her part in the relationship. They are now on friendly terms and actually get together at some family gatherings, making Rose’s children’s lives a lot easier.
Unless you completely forgive the person you wronged for his or her part in the interaction, your resentment will seep out and contaminate your apology. You’ll end up letting your resentment slip out in statements like, “Of course, what you did didn’t help the situation any. If you hadn’t been so stubborn and pig-headed I wouldn’t have been as forceful as I was in my argument.” This kind of statement will negate your apology and sabotage the entire process.
Step Six: Plan and prepare for your apology
Making an apology is a very serious thing and should not be taken lightly. Therefore it is very important that you plan and prepare for your apology in order to maximize the possibilities of it being a positive experience for both you and the person you wronged.
Impulsively picking up the phone or going over to someone’s house in order to apologize can set you up for disappointment. As discussed above, you need to devote some time to thinking about the consequences of your actions and to empathize with the person you harmed. And you need to give some thought as to what you want to say. There will, of course, be occasions when a spontaneous “I’m sorry” is very appropriate. But for those bigger mistakes and transgressions, impulsiveness and spontaneity may convey disrespect and may cause you to botch your efforts at apology. We don’t often get a second chance at an apology so make the best of your efforts by doing some preparation.
On the other hand, don’t allow yourself to become so obsessed with what you are going to say and how you are going to say it that you become immobilized.
Choosing How To Deliver Your Apology
The manner in which you apologize can be as important as the apology itself. For example, some people choose to apologize in person, while others feel that it is more advantageous to apologize in writing. In the following section I will discuss the various ways in which you may choose to apologize, along with the pros and cons of each.
A face-to-face apology is usually the best way to apologize because it affords the opportunity for the wronged person to see your face and thus be better able to ascertain your sincerity. But it takes courage to look the person you wronged directly in the eyes, admit your offense and apologize. And it takes courage to have the person you wronged look in your eyes and see your vulnerability and remorse. If you have this courage you will benefit tremendously. Whether the other person is able to forgive you or not, you’ll feel good about yourself for being able to face up to your mistakes.
There can, however, be some disadvantages to a face-to-face apology. The person being apologized to may feel as if he or she is put on the spot and is being pressured to forgive. Because of this you may want to preface your apology with a statement like, “I would like to apologize to you for …. I don’t expect you to be ready to forgive me. I just want to say my peace and then I’ll give you time to think about what I’ve said.”
A face-to-face apology should never be attempted if you have any reason to suspect that the person you wronged may lash out at you physically. If you know ahead of time that the person you have wronged tends to act out violently and is still extremely angry with you, it is probably not a good idea to apologize face-to-face.
Some people feel compelled to travel great distances in order to apologize in person and if this is your situation, by all means follow your instincts. But in most cases, a written apology is probably your best option if the person you wronged lives very far away from you.
Written apologies are also a good choice for those who tend to bumble attempts at speaking from the heart. Some people just don’t do well when it comes to expressing themselves verbally, either because they become very nervous or because they don’t think well on their feet. If this describes you, writing your apology down on paper will likely be far less stressful to you and can be more effective as well.
A written apology can also feel like less pressure to the person you are apologizing to than a face-to-face apology. It gives the person you wronged plenty of time and space to decide whether or not he or she is prepared to forgive you. He or she can reread your letter at leisure, affording her or him the opportunity to think through the situation completely.
Be sure to keep a copy of your apology letter in case the person you’ve wronged wants to discuss it with you or has questions about what you stated in the letter. It can also be a good idea to keep a copy of the letter as a reminder of the consequences your words and actions.
Beverly Engel is author of The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships (Wiley). This article printed in Related Matters and www.umass.edu/fambiz with her permission.