Five things you must do when you say sorry

Tips on how to say sorry the right way

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 5:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 5:00am

You messed up. Maybe you made your spouse cry, forgot about your child's basketball game, got caught in a lie - or worse. An apology is in order. What should you say?

Our apologies are usually "woefully inadequate because we have a fundamental misunderstanding about their purpose", says Guy Winch, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts.

"Most apologies tend to be excuses or justifications that neglect to address the feelings of the person to whom we're apologising."

Before you start to craft your apology, remember the goal is to make the other person feel better, not yourself.

"We will only feel better, and less guilty, if they feel better and forgive us," Winch says.

Sincerity will be at the root of any good apology, says Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist and relationship coach based in McLean, Virginia. "Too often apologies are delivered with a 'but' in an attempt at justification," she says.

The moment you ask for forgiveness isn't the time to make excuses, says Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. It's when you should show true remorse, Coleman says, and are open to listening to your loved ones explain how you've hurt them.

"If apologies are an art form, most of us can barely finger-paint," Winch says.

Admitting fallibility might be the first hurdle for many on the path to a good apology, but even those willing to own up to mistakes should know how to do it effectively. Winch said the ideal apology will include five specific ingredients:

1. An "I'm sorry" statement.

2. Expression of regret for your mistake.

3. An acknowledgment that social norms or relationship expectations were violated.

4. A statement of empathy in which you acknowledge that you understand how your actions may have hurt the other person.

5. A request for forgiveness.

Winch says the third point - acknowledging why the act was wrong - "tends to sensitise the offender to the issue and reduce the likelihood of offending in this way again". Make it clear to the person you harmed that you understand why your decision was a poor one. Did you violate their trust? Break a promise? Act selfishly? Say that.

But don't go overboard. Keep the apology concise, Alpert says, and avoid saying too much or straying from the point. This could "dilute your intended message", he says.

Even if your apology includes all the necessary parts, it needs to feel as if it has a heart, too.

"Don't be afraid to show genuine emotion," Alpert says.

The trickier aspect of apologising is identifying the best time to do it. Good apologies require reflection and thought, so rushing one might make it less effective, Winch warns.

"Apologies that come too quickly can feel insincere," Winch says.

Alpert says the timing all depends on the circumstances. Waiting a few hours or days (whatever feels appropriate based on the offence) to give the person you wronged time to calm down could play to your advantage. And even if you've left a wound open for a while, he insists, "a late apology is better than no apology".

"Most of us consider the words 'I'm sorry' the essence of an apology, but too often these two simple words are nowhere to be found," Winch says.

While "sorry" might be implied in your admission of error or guilt, "that doesn't mean the other person doesn't need to hear it".

An empty "I'm sorry" is meaningless, Coleman says. A good apology "needs to be delivered with emotion and body signals" and should recognise how your actions hurt the other person or people. If your apology feels forced, it is likely to leave the person who was wronged even angrier and less trusting than before, Coleman says.

"Clearly identify what it is you are apologising for," Alpert says.

If your apology is rejected, "go back to the drawing board" and try again, Winch says. "Be even more sincere next time."

And if all else fails: "Ask the person what you can do to try to make things better," Alpert says.

Tribune News Service