Apologies are tough.
Managing uncomfortable emotions, reckoning with your ego, and resisting the urge to say literally anything you can to make the bad feelings go away make giving a good apology a challenge.
But apologizing well is critical to being well-liked and well-respected. We all make mistakes. It’s how we own up to them and what we do about them that counts.
What’s In A Good Apology?
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”―Benjamin Franklin
A good apology has a few main parts:
- Accepting responsibility
- Acknowledging impact
- Promising change
Here’s what each of those parts can look like.
1. Accepting Responsibility
Start with the facts of the situation. What happened? Don’t get into the weeds of why it happened or how you felt about it; just lay out exactly what occurred that you want to apologize for.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t call you when I said I would.”
“I’m sorry that I said something unkind about you.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t follow through.”
No explanations, justifications, or extraneous details. You want it to be as clear as possible for both of you exactly what event it is you’re discussing.
2. Acknowledging Impact
Dive into the consequences of the action you took. Whether you intended it or not, how did your actions make the other person feel? Did your actions inconvenience them? Hurt them? It doesn’t matter whether or not you meant to hurt them. What matters is that you did.
“When I didn’t call you, I know you were worried that something was wrong. I totally understand why that was stressful for you.”
“I understand that what I said was hurtful to you, and that I shouldn’t have said it.”
“You trusted me and I didn’t do what I said I would. I get why that’s frustrating and why you might not trust me anymore.”
By restating how they felt, you’re also giving them an opportunity to correct you. If they weren’t mad, just worried, then the change you promise in step 3 might look different. Communicating your understanding of the entire situation is a great way to make sure you’re both on the same page.
3. Promising change
Apologies don’t matter if you proceed to keep doing what you just apologized for. How will you make sure this never happens again? Make sure your promise is as concrete and actionable as possible. “I’ll communicate better” isn’t something you can be held accountable for, but “I’ll always call if I’m running late” is.
“In the future, I’ll text you if I’m not somewhere I can call.”
“I’ll come to you if I have an issue with something you’re doing, not talk behind your back.”
“If you trust me with something in the future, I’ll tell you ahead of time if I can’t follow through.”
What Not To Say In A Good Apology
“Apologies are great, but they don’t really change anything. You know what does? Action.” -Stella Young
- “I’m sorry that you’re upset.” That’s not an apology. It might be an expression of empathy, but it’s not a true apology.
- “I’m sorry that you’re offended.” This is neither an apology nor an expression of empathy. It’s a way to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. If you aren’t actually remorseful of your actions, don’t say that you’re sorry. Say “I understand you’re offended. That’s unfortunate,” if that’s what you mean.
- “I’m sorry, but…” Apologies are not the time for justifications. There are no caveats. Either you messed up and you’re going to change, or you’re not. That’s what counts in an apology.
- “Yes, I messed up, but you…” Focus on one issue at a time. Even if the other person did the same thing you’re apologizing for, you need to apologize if you made a mistake. It doesn’t matter what they did. It matters what you did and what you intend to do about it. Ask for their apology at a different time.
- “I’m sorry for whatever I did.” If you don’t know what you’re apologizing for, you can’t be sorry. Ask for clarification. “Can you tell me what I did that upset you, so I can make sure it doesn’t happen again?” is a better statement to make.
- “I promise to never, ever, ever do that again. Ever.” Making big promises just to get the other person to accept your apology will always backfire. Don’t promise anything you won’t keep. If what they want isn’t possible, you’re much better off saying, “I can’t promise to do XYZ, but I will do ABC.”
- “I’m so sorry. Oh my god, I’m such a bad person.” An apology should always be focused on the other person — what you did to them, how it impacted them, and how you plan to do better for them in the future. Don’t put the other person in the awkward position of comforting you. It’s not their job to carry your guilt.
There are no promises in apologizing. You can’t guarantee that another person will forgive you. But if you want to be someone people trust, even when you make mistakes, you have to learn how to apologize.