When to Apologize (and How to Do It)

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s a fact of life. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back, or acted in a way we later regretted. The important thing is to make sure that when other people are hurt by our mistakes, we do everything we can to remedy the situation. Typically, it doesn’t take a grand gesture to show someone we’ve hurt that we’re sorry. Most people are only looking to know that you respect their feelings and won’t hurt/offend them in the future. In that case, a sincere apology can be all you need to smooth things over.

For some people, figuring out how to apologize is easier said than done. You might be more comfortable avoiding the person you’ve upset so that you don’t have to relive your mistake, or risk making the situation worse. But never apologizing can be damaging to your relationships and can really hurt you socially.

If you think you owe someone an apology, but aren’t sure how to go about it, these tips are a good place to start:

  1. Know why you’re apologizing. If you apologize without knowing what you did wrong, or why it was upsetting/offensive, your apology will come across as insincere. It’s impossible to empathize with someone if you don’t see how your specific actions have impacted them. Finding out exactly what you’ve done to upset someone may call for a conversation with that person. Most people don’t mind talking through a conflict when they know you’re trying to make things better. But keep in mind that it may be a good idea to give them some time to cool down first.
  2. Explain without making excuses. While it’s okay (and maybe even helpful) to explain your perspective, you still need to take responsibility for the things you did wrong. If you use your chance to apologize as an opportunity to argue that you didn’t do anything all that bad, you could make things worse instead of better. It’s best to explain why you made the mistake and how you’ve come to understand that it was wrong. This will keep you from feeling like you’ve been misunderstood, and will give you a chance to show that you’ve learned from the incident.
  3. Make forgiveness your only motive. People can easily see through an apology that will benefit you more than it benefits them. You should never see an apology as a way to quickly smooth things over so you can get something you want. If you’re apologizing to your mother for using swear words at the dinner table, your goal should be to make amends for breaking a rule—not to make your mom less angry so she will let you go to the movies later. She will know if she’s being manipulated, and it will make the situation worse.
  4. Mean what you say. One of the purposes of an apology is to show your friends that you understand and empathize with their feelings. But if you earn their forgiveness only to repeat the action that hurt them, your relationship could be damaged. Not only will your apology lose its meaning, but future apologies will seem insincere.

 The good news is that once a sincere apology is made, most relationships will go back to normal pretty quickly. Your friends and family will likely be happy to smooth things over so they can go back to enjoying their time with you!



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Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More