Have you ever said or heard someone say the words, “I'm sorry” but you still felt like they had done something wrong or it was your fault? Apologizing is not easy and sometimes it can do more harm than good. That's why I've created this guide to help you know when to apologize and how to apologize so the other person feels heard.
Empathize with them.
If you've ever been on the receiving end of someone's apology, you know that whether it feels genuine and heartfelt or not can make all the difference in how you feel about it. If a friend tells you, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean any harm by it,” but then proceeds to justify their behavior or offer advice to help mend your relationship with a mutual friend (assuming both of these are things that were not asked for), chances are you're going to be left feeling unheard and unsupported. While there may be some truth in what they say and do, their words and actions also communicate another message: “Why are you so upset? You need to hear me out!” So instead of considering how their action made you feel, now you're consumed by thoughts like: “Am I being too sensitive? Why won't they just let this go? They don't get it at all!”
With empathy, the apology becomes less about the person apologizing justifying themselves or trying to convince the other person why they weren't wrong—it's simply an expression of understanding (and ideally regret) for how their actions have made someone else feel. They don't need to take responsibility for others' feelings if they choose not to—that's up to them—but empathy is an acknowledgement that there are other perspectives besides our own that we may not have considered before.
When apologizing, use statements like: “I can see how my behavior hurt/offended/upset/distressed/angered/frustrated (you).” Or even better yet...
Understand your role in what happened.
When you're in the wrong, you may want to apologize. But when you're apologizing to someone else, it's important not to get too caught up in your own feelings about what happened. Instead of thinking about how bad it feels for you that the other person is upset, focus on understanding their experience from their perspective. This will help them feel heard and understood by you. Here's an example:
You: "I'm so sorry I broke your favorite vase!"
Your friend who owns the vase: "Yeah, well that was pretty thoughtless of you!"
You: "I know! It was all my fault! I can't believe I did something so stupid!"
This kind of apology does nothing to show your friend that their thoughts and feelings matter as much as yours do. A more productive version would sound like this:
You: "I really understand why you're upset with me right now."
Your friend who owns the vase: "It was a sentimental gift from my ex."
You: "That must make it even harder for me to have broken it."
See how this version shows your friend that they matter? Even if they don't say anything back to acknowledge your apology, chances are good they appreciated hearing it because they felt heard and understood by you.
Acknowledge that you can't really understand their feelings or experience.
One of the greatest challenges in a relationship is understanding how the other person feels in any given moment. As much as you try to put yourself in their shoes—especially when they're angry, upset or hurt—it's nearly impossible to truly know what they're going through.
This is why it's critical that you acknowledge the fact that you don't understand them fully and never will, because even if you have had a similar experience (which may not be true), there will always be some differences between your experience and theirs.
This doesn't mean dismissing their feelings; on the contrary, it shows them that you care enough about them to recognize your limits. It's also important for you to remember that at this moment, their feelings are more relevant than yours anyway—as much as your intentions may have been good, this isn't the time to argue over who was "right" or "wrong."
Apologize for the specific thing you did and what it meant to them.
You may think you’re apologizing, but if you just say “I’m sorry,” this might not be enough. Someone who is hurting needs to feel that they have been heard and understood.
So when you apologize, make sure it’s for the specific thing that hurt the other person. And then take it a step further: explain how your actions made them feel or what your actions meant to them. For example: “I know I hurt you when I skipped out on our plans last minute, and it made me realize how important it is to you that I keep my promises to you.” Or: “I know I embarrassed you by bringing up my ex in front of your friends. It seems like it was upsetting because we had just gotten into a fight about trust earlier in the week—and now I see that this didn't help at all!” By acknowledging the impact of your actions, not just the action itself, people will feel more understood and validated when they hear your apology. Giving reasons for why things happened may seem like an excuse for what was done wrong or even mean minimizing the hurt caused by an apology; but giving context can give the other person insight into why things happened as they did—and help them understand better where we are coming from.
Don't try to minimize the impact of your actions or change the subject.
You may be tempted to try to excuse it away. You may want to change the subject or turn a serious conversation into a joke. But don't! Your apology needs to stay on track.
"When you minimize the impact of your actions, you aren't taking responsibility for what you did," says Cara Bradley, PhD, an executive and leadership coach who specializes in high-performance coaching and is the author of On The Verge: Wake Up, Show Up, and Shine. "Apologizing effectively means owning your part."
So if someone is upset with you because you snapped at them, even though they got on your nerves all day long—don't start talking about how stressed out you are. A big part of apologizing is allowing the other person to feel heard. And that means not telling them how they should feel instead of actually listening to their side of things."
Don't tell them what they should have done or how they should have felt instead.
It's easy to fall into a pattern of explaining the other person's actions when you apologize. You tell the person that they did this, or that you feel like it would have been better if they did this. While I'm sure there is some truth in what you're saying, this is not the time to make those points (and even if it were, you'll be more successful if you follow these guidelines).
Instead of focusing on their behavior and your reactions to it, just focus on your own actions and how they caused pain for someone else. That's what an apology is about—acknowledging your own mistakes and accepting responsibility for them. Don't try to blame anyone else, and don't argue that the other person brought it upon themselves. This should go without saying: do not make excuses for yourself! Saying "I wouldn't have done that if x had happened," or "Although I did y, z was also true." This isn't a court hearing; leave out all irrelevant evidence and arguments.
Apologize for how you made them feel, not just for what you did.
A heartfelt apology goes a long way, but it’s not enough to simply say you’re sorry. After all, true remorse requires understanding the impact your words or actions had on someone.
For example, imagine that you had an argument with a friend and proceeded to tell them (or post on social media) a story about them that they considered quite personal and private. When you apologize for the argument itself, without acknowledging how sharing their secret made them feel ashamed and betrayed, the person might not accept your apology because it feels insufficient. In this case, you would need to address how your actions affected your friend and make sure they know that you understand why what you did was wrong in order to have any chance of maintaining your friendship.
Talk about how you will handle it differently in the future.
As you are apologizing, think about what you learned from the situation. How can you prevent it from happening again? What will you do differently next time? Be proactive with this aspect of the apology process. Don’t just say “I’m sorry,” and expect that to make all things right.
Acknowledge your role in the hurtful situation, and commit to making a change for the better. If possible, share with the other person how you plan on handling it differently next time, and ask if there is anything else they wish to add to help prevent this issue from occurring again. In doing so, your apology becomes more than just words; you are taking responsibility for your actions and showing that person that they matter enough for you to want to improve yourself.
Ask if there's anything else you can do to make things right with them.
Asking if there's anything else you can do to make things right with them will help you do that. It's especially helpful if you used the other four steps on this list and are still not sure what more you need to offer.
Another benefit of asking is that it gives the offended person the chance to come up with solutions for making amends, which will help them feel empowered, which in turn makes them more likely to forgive.
You should also ask because sometimes we don't realize how our actions have affected someone else until they tell us. Hearing what they have to say may give you additional insight into how your actions made them feel and why your apology is important to them.
Tell them you're sorry again before ending the conversation.
The biggest mistake people make after an apology is letting the conversation end awkwardly.
Don't be too quick to leave the scene. When you're with someone who's hurt or angry, it's important to let them feel heard and understood so they can move on from their pain. Remind them that you are sorry, and then give them a chance to process what happened before ending the exchange.
If someone is still upset when a conversation ends, chances are they will replay it in their minds for some time afterward—and not in a good way. Instead of letting an apology linger on into awkwardness, take the opportunity to turn things around at the end of your conversation by asking an open-ended question like: "Can you tell me more about why this felt hurtful?"
Apologizing is a skill that can be learned and practiced.
When you think of apologizing, you might be thinking of some gnarly situation in your life. Maybe you forgot to show up to help someone move, or maybe it was something even worse. I’d like to put all of that aside for a moment and instead focus on what an apology is at its core: an acknowledgment that you have done something to hurt another person and that it is in your power to repair this damage.
It’s easy to dismiss the art of apologizing as something only people who screw up (a lot) need — but know that this skill can actually benefit us all. By approaching apologies as a skill rather than a chore or character flaw, we open up the possibility for growth.