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How To Apologize to Someone You’ve Hurt — The Right Way (Because There’s Definitely a Wrong Way)

The art of the apology.


It can be daunting to apologize to someone you’ve hurt deeply. Why? Because acknowledging our mistakes and finding the right words to make amends takes courage, humility, and love. Rendering a true apology is a kind of supplication, requiring us to own our faults and bad behaviors — and change them. If done correctly, apologies are healing and restorative. They can repair fractures in relationships and even make them stronger. That said, they can also go terribly wrong; specifically, when phrased poorly or offered disingenuously. With this in mind, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts for apologizing to someone you’ve hurt.

What should I say when I’m apologizing?

When apologizing to someone, keep the below in mind.

Start with sincerity.

Acknowledge your mistake and express regret for causing pain or hurt to the other person. Use phrases like “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.”

Take responsibility for your actions.

Accept full responsibility for your mistake without making excuses. Avoid shifting the blame to the person you’re apologizing to, and focus instead on what you can do to correct the situation.

Be specific about what you are apologizing for.

When apologizing, be as specific as possible about what you did wrong. This shows that you understand the gravity of your actions and are truly remorseful.

Show empathy and understanding.

A sincere apology shows empathy and understanding for the feelings — sad, angry, resentful, or otherwise — of the person who’s been wronged. This means being willing to listen to (and really hear) how the hurt you caused impacted the person to whom you’re apologizing.

Offer to make it right.

Key to rendering a real apology is asking how you can make things right. This might be a gesture or an act of kindness, such as offering to do something that the other person needs or asking what you can do to help.

Accept the consequences.

Understand that your actions have consequences, and be prepared to accept them. Doing so might require making changes to your behavior or simply being more self-aware and mindful.

Understand that time may be needed to heal.

Recovering from relationship wounds takes time. Be patient with the recipient of your apology and respect their feelings as they process your regrets.

What should I avoid saying while apologizing?

In addition to the above, avoid the below.  

Don’t make it about you.

Focus on the other person and their feelings, not how you feel about the situation. We often want to talk about our own feelings of guilt or regret, but this makes the apology self-centered rather than sincere.

Don’t make excuses.

Leave out excuses and explanations for your actions. Making excuses renders the apology moot, as it’s a sign that you’re not taking full responsibility for your mistakes.

Don’t shift the blame.

Carry the weight of your misdeeds without putting their burden on the apology’s recipient. This means taking ownership of your actions.

Don’t minimize the situation.

Be mindful of how you word your apology, and don’t try to downplay or minimize the impact of what you did. Acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and show that you are truly sorry for your mistake. Making the other person feel small or disregarded is not the goal of an apology.

Don’t demand forgiveness.

Remember that forgiveness is not a given. It must be earned, not demanded. Don’t expect it just because you said you’re sorry. Demanding forgiveness makes an apology insincere and reduces the likelihood of a meaningful resolution. 

Don’t rush it.

Heartfelt apologies should be made thoughtfully and without rushing. Take your time to really think about what you’re saying and how it may be received.

Don’t expect immediate forgiveness.

Finally, it’s important to understand that you may not receive an immediate response or forgiveness. It can take time for trust to be reestablished and wounds to heal.

When should I apologize?

Timing is an important factor when it comes to apologizing.

When To Apologize Immediately

If the situation involves an urgent matter or is causing an immediate disruption, it’s best to apologize as soon as possible. This shows that you are taking responsibility for your actions and are ready to make things right.

When It’s Appropriate To Wait

In rare cases, it’s preferable to apologize later (versus sooner). These times include when the aggrieved person needs time to cool off or when space for an intimate, one-on-one conversation requires special arrangements. (Public apologies are typically not a good idea.)  

How To Determine When To Apologize

Consider the other person’s feelings and needs when choosing the right time and place to apologize. 

Dealing With Difficult Apologies

Sometimes, apologizing can be more difficult than expected. Here are some tips for dealing with challenging and/or uncomfortable apologies.

When the Other Person Won’t Accept Your Apology

If the person refuses to accept your apology, you must respect their decision. Sincere apologies aren’t coercive. If the aggrieved person isn’t ready or willing to receive your apology, accept their wishes and give them time and space — understanding that they may never come around.

When the Other Person Is Angry

If the person is angry or hostile, remain calm and open to hearing their feelings. Acknowledge their emotions and make space for their frustration. Listening carefully can help to defuse anger and hostility.

When You Don’t Feel Like You’re in the Wrong

If you don’t feel like you’re in the wrong, you can still express understanding for the other person’s feelings. This can be done by acknowledging your different perspectives, and making yourself available to a mutually agreeable resolution.

When the Situation Is More Complex

If the situation involves multiple people or is complicated in some other way, it can take substantially more time to sort out. Offer to sit down and talk through the matter, and acknowledge that things won’t be rectified overnight. 

The Importance of Body Language and Tone

When apologizing, paying attention to your body language and tone is essential.

The Impact of Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture, have a major impact on how an apology is received. Refrain from sighing, fidgeting, rolling your eyes, crossing your arms in front of your chest, and pointing your fingers. For the best possible outcome, maintain positive, open, and inviting body language when apologizing.

The Power of a Sincere Tone

The tone of your voice should match the sincerity of your words and show that you are taking full responsibility for your mistakes. It can help the other person feel comfortable and heard.

The Power of a Handwritten Note

A handwritten note is a powerful tool for expressing remorse and is one of the most effective and meaningful ways to render an apology. It shows that you are taking the time to think carefully about what you are saying, and that you are willing to put in the effort to make things right. It also serves as a tangible reminder of your apology and a way for the other person to keep it close. When writing an apology note, be genuine, thoughtful, and clear. Acknowledge the issue and your part in it, and express how you plan to make things right.

How do you move forward after an apology?

Finally, it’s important to know how to move forward after an apology.

Rebuild trust.

Rebuilding trust after an apology is a difficult but crucial process. This phase of relationship recovery involves setting boundaries, establishing healthy communication, and taking steps to be more mindful of your actions and their impact.

Prevent future mistakes.

It’s also important to reflect on the situation and develop strategies for preventing future arguments. This will include finding the root cause of your mistake, taking accountability for your actions, and finding ways to learn from the experience.

Seek outside help.

If the situation becomes too difficult to handle on your own, it may be best to seek outside help. This could involve talking to a therapist or a trusted friend or family member for advice.

A Final Word

Apologizing is a crucial part of any healthy relationship and a powerful tool for setting stalemate situations right. Follow the tips outlined above to render an effective apology and commence rebuilding trust in your relationship. Remember, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry. Taking responsibility for your actions, listening carefully, and expressing sincere remorse can go a long way in helping to make things right. You’ve got this.

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