If you are not sure how to apologise or if you should, remember that saying sorry is a profound act which can trigger a healing process.

Have you ever wanted to say sorry, but you’ve held back? Maybe you thought that the other person should say it first, that apologising would make you appear weak, or that the problem was in the past and now it’s too late to say sorry?

There are many situations where we could apologise but fail to, and just as many ‘good reasons’ not to, or so it seems. Some of us have had the experience of a failed apology, when a conversation went wrong. When the other person is unwilling or not ready to accept it, this can be discouraging, but one bad experience shouldn’t colour all scenarios.

An apology is often all it takes to start a healing process, to relieve tensions, to calm resentment. It can strengthen a relationship, reconcile differences and clear up misunderstandings.

The power of apology is often under-estimated. It’s essential to resolve a conflict or ask forgiveness, yet apologising is often discouraged and in some cases even prohibited! 

Making an apology has been called “one of the most profound human interactions”, but it is one which is also greatly misunderstood, so we don’t use it as often as we could, or even should.

We can all think of festering grudges that have tarnished, or even destroyed, a relationship. Many of us can think of a situation where we could offer an apology but have chosen not to (well, I can). Sometimes we recognise that a sincere expression of regret has unparalleled healing properties, but more often we choose to ignore this and instead find excuses to justify our refusal to make amends.

What stops us?

Saying “sorry” can be a powerful first step to remedy a troubled relationship, but we generally have a range of reasons for not offering it. These purported justifications are really just excuses. For example, mistaken beliefs about saying sorry such as: 

  • it means you are ‘taking the blame’ for something
  • apologising makes you look weak
  • it puts you in the wrong and open to attack
  • if you apologise it ‘lets the other person off the hook’
  • the other person will retaliate
  • saying sorry makes you look guilty
  • it means you are not perfect…

These may seem valid but a bit of soul-searching will often reveal that we use them to protect ourselves from having to say we are sorry. Even if some of these are accurate, that still doesn’t justify refusing to apologise, if that would help to repair some damage.

Taking responsibility

This is probably one of the main reasons we are slow to act when we need to apologise. Taking responsibility means acknowledging your contribution to a problem. It doesn’t make you to blame for the problem. 

There is an important distinction here: When I take responsibility – for example, for my part in an argument – and I apologise for my behaviour, that doesn’t mean that I assume total responsibility for arguing. This should be shared between both parties, and never should there be any talk of ‘fault’ or ‘blame’. That only leads back into the mire of who-is-right-and-who-is-wrong, which merely prolongs the argument.

Taking responsibility means having the self-awareness and maturity to act according to your values of honesty and integrity. It means acknowledging who you are and taking ownership if something you said or did offended or harmed another person or others. That can feel a bit uncomfortable, but it is character-strengthening and generally earns respect.

A steep curve

When you appreciate just how important apologising is and to want to do something about it, this can be a steep learning curve. The excuses above are tenacious, and in some work and professional cultures, competition and adversarialism are the rule, so saying sorry is frowned upon. It takes the courage of your own convictions to break the pattern and to behave in a way that you think is correct.

Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, says

“Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

Why is this important?

Many relationships could benefit from this process, particularly at work. Yet some business cultures positively discourage apology because they see it as somehow associated with blame or weakness. 

Apologising for something at work equals to being ‘wrong’, and being wrong is not a comfortable place for most of us in a culture that encourages us to be ‘right’ as much as possible.

Privately, we have no such excuse. In families and other close relationships, the ability to show remorse and apologise when necessary are hallmarks of healthy relationships. If we ignore the power of apology and refuse to say we are sorry when we know we could, then we also have to accept responsibility for the consequences of that decision without hiding behind blame or hurt pride.

When to say you are sorry

It can often be hard to know just how to apologise, particularly when the ‘offence’ happened some time ago. A common response is to let ‘sleeping dogs lie’. An example of the sort of excuse we use, is that there is no point in stirring up past hurts or reminding ourselves (and the other person) of an unhappy event.

In some cases, this may be good advice, but it can also become a self-serving mantra to avoid personal accountability for patching things up. Perhaps you have wanted to apologise for something but have not been sure of how to go about it? It’s never too late and if you feel as if you should apologise then perhaps you should create an opportunity to do so.

Who to apologise for

By the way, this all assumes that you are apologising for your own mistakes or misdemeanours, so be clear about who and what you are apologising for. In this case, apologising is a personal matter between you and the offended party. You are acknowledging your part in whatever the problem is or was, and letting the other person know you regret it and want to make amends. You are not responsible for a group, your ancestors, nor events in history. Such situations need a more formal approach, and they are symbolic, rather than personal.

Whether it concerns a recent event or something that happened between you in the past, apologising doesn’t need to be a complicated or drawn-out process. As long as it is genuine, a sincere expression of regret is often the first step to better relations, rebuilding trust AND an end to any underlying sense of tension or guilt you may have been feeling.

For example, a simple opener would be “There’s something that’s been troubling me about (situation X). I know we both suffered and I’d like you to know how sorry I am for my part in it”, or “We don’t seem to have been getting along as well as we used to. I’m sorry about that and I’d like to do something about it.” This expresses regret for the failure of the relationship but does not say “…and it’s all my fault”.

How to apologise

Saying you are sorry, particularly when you are taking responsibility for having wronged someone, is the mark of strength. It may seem easier to just let things pass, to assume that time will heal, and that a misdemeanour will be forgotten. But forgotten doesn’t mean healed, and, as history shows us, the resentment and bitterness can remain long after the event which originally caused the bad feeling.

Learning to apologise with sincerity is a personal choice, and one that can go little way to correcting the wider social shortcoming of refusing to say sorry. 

An apology serves several purposes. It demonstrates contrition and offers atonement, and it also shows, if properly crafted, that we have taken responsibility for our actions.

Responsibility starts within us. We must first accept and own what we have done and the consequent hurt or distress we’ve caused the other person.

Hedging our apology with justifications, ‘buts’ or excuses merely shows that we are not sincere and it invalidates our efforts. An authentic apology is genuine and unconditional.

It’s a personal matter in another way too; there’s no way of knowing whether the person you are apologising to will accept your apology, and they may not thank you. When making amends this way the only satisfaction may be that you know you acted in good faith and for the right reasons. 

Who could you say sorry to and brighten both your days? I’ve included a few do’s and don’ts below to help, see what you think.

And if you are still hooked on winning, remember that somebody once said: “An apology is a good way to have the last word.”

Do

  • Recognise the power of an apology.
  • Make sure you mean it; sincerity is everything.
  • Acknowledge the hurt and the harm you may have done.
  • Do it for yourself; being able to express yourself sincerely is life-enhancing.
  • Match the right level of formality; the graver the offence (in their view) the more formal the apology should be.
  • Err on the side of caution; they may see it as very serious, even if you don’t.
  • Be prepared to explain if it is relevant, but beware of it sounding like an excuse. Personally, I’d avoid explanations. If it’s asked for, I’d follow up in a separate conversation. Focus first on repairing the relationship and beware of opening old wounds.
  • Don’t expect thanks or recognition. If they don’t accept your apology, take the rejection with dignity and know you did the right thing. 
  • Give them time; it can be almost as hard to accept an apology as to give one. You’ll have been thinking about it for some time. They may need time to digest what you’ve said before accepting it.
  • Show genuine remorse. An arrogant apology is worse than no apology.

Don’t

  • Expect miracles, you may be ready to say sorry, they may not be ready to hear it
  • Underestimate the power of apology to heal and repair
  • Link the apology to an excuse or justification
  • Rush it. You may feel nervous but speak clearly. Mumbling or hesitation will weaken the message
  • Make it appear that they are to blame (even if they are partly responsible)
  • Put it off.

Maturity and wisdom

In this short read, I have explained why an apology is important and how to go about making amends. It takes personal maturity and wisdom to offer a sincere apology, and also a degree of patience and acceptance.

When you offer an apology, the recipient is under no obligation to accept it. It can be that apologising is only the first and necessary step in a longer healing process. This is particularly the case in situations where strong emotions like anger and hurt are present.

The art of giving an apology is generally under-used, for sure. But you can be sure that knowing how to apologise with dignity and grace will always be a characteristic worth nurturing.