A step-by-step guide to apologizing with tact and sincerity

How to master this difficult, yet universal, interaction.

How to master this difficult, yet universal, interaction

(Credit: Mārtiņš Zemlickis/unsplash.com)

2017 was a lot of things, but in many ways it felt like the Year of the Apology. Or, at the very least, the Year of the Public Apology. By the time December hit, we were wading through a new stack of mournful statements from formidable men who'd abused their power. And while those pleas for forgiveness made way for powerful responses in the form of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, they also called our attention to how utterly unsatisfying an apology can feel if approached incorrectly or insincerely — something we've undoubtedly encountered in our everyday lives, but may not have experienced on such a collective level.

Apologies are universal. Though most of us don't exist in the public sphere and don't have to issue ours to an audience of millions, we all have to give them and we all have to — or would like to, rather — receive them at different times. In fact, apart from saying "hello" and "goodbye", apologies are one of the first social exchanges our parents teach us to navigate. Which begs the question: why are they so difficult to get right?

While there's certainly no one right way to express regret or acknowledge wrongdoing, there are several things you can do to help ensure that every apology feels fulfilling, genuine and complete — for both parties. We spoke to a few experts to gain insight into those do's and don'ts and learn how to apply them in our everyday lives. Here's what they said:

Set an intention beyond forgiveness

We're taught from our very first kindergarten squabbles that an apology happens in two parts: there's the "I'm sorry" portion, followed swiftly by the words "I forgive you." It's neat, clean — and unrealistic when dealing with complex, adult issues that are often tangled up in raw, human emotions. Dr. Amber Cohen, a Clinical Psychologist based in Toronto, argues that this deeply internalized paradigm not only sets up the complicated process of acceptance as an automatic reward for going through the motions of an apology, it also focuses our expectations for the encounter on the one thing we don't have any control over: the other person's reaction. To help break out of this cycle, Dr. Cohen recommends setting "an intention behind your apology that is based on you. An example intention could be to communicate remorse and affirm your concern for the other party's welfare." Doing so will help ensure that you walk into the situation with a precise, self-focused goal you can actually accomplish regardless of how the other person responds.

Acknowledge what you did wrong

This one's a biggie, and it requires a certain level of internal reflection. The first step, Dr. Cohen explains, is to understand, and take ownership of, how you have wronged someone. "We can feel strong emotions such as guilt and shame when we have hurt someone, and can become quite reactive to these emotions," she says. "Make space for these emotions by noticing them without judging them. If you are reactive to the emotions, you run the risk of communicating defensively."

From there, it's all about being able to acknowledge and articulate exactly what you're sorry for — in specific terms. This helps to ensure both parties are on the same page about what's being addressed, and adds a level of sincerity to the statements. As Rebecca Meyers, a Toronto-based communications industry professional, puts it: "nobody feels validated by... an apology that comes across as overly vague or scripted… It is important to take fulsome responsibility in a clear way, in real time."

Actually say the words "I'm sorry"

Despite this phrase being practically synonymous with the term "apology", so many of the public pleas for forgiveness we've heard over the few months conveniently leave out these two simple words (ahem, Louis C.K., and many, many others), which means it's probably worth stressing how important they are. While they'll never be the core of your encounter, saying "I'm sorry" or "I apologize", connotes remorse, humility and signals to the other person that you're willing to have an open conversation about what went wrong.  

No "ifs" or "buts"

Once you've got the words "I'm sorry" down pat, focus your attention on what comes next. According to Dr. Don Russell, a Winnipeg-based Counselling Therapist, starting any apology with the phrase "I'm sorry if" can be problematic, as it implies that you're "apologizing for the [other] person's emotional reaction instead of apologizing for the deed that caused the emotional reaction." This indicates a failure to take responsibility for what's been done and "covertly communicate[s] that the other person's reaction is the problem, not the original misdeed," which may put the person who's been hurt further on the defensive.   

Similarly, Dr. Cohen notes that it's important to stay away from using "I'm sorry but" when you're apologizing, as any positive progress that you've made "before the 'but' gets erased and becomes void" when an attempt to justify one's actions comes into play, overshadowing any expressed remorse. Which leads us to...

Don't try to justify

Most of us have pretty legitimate reasons for the things we say and do, even if those acts end up hurting the ones closest to us. And if the trend in seeing classic tales told through the eyes of their villains proves anything, those justifications can be compelling. However, that doesn't mean that they have any place in your apology. As Dr. Russell explains, undermining an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by following it with excuses "implies that the misdeed wasn't really a misdeed" as it attempts to "remove the person's responsibility." At that point, Dr. Russell argues, "it is no longer an apology — it is a tale of woe." And while it may make you feel better to get the whole story across, it doesn't do much for the person you're trying to make amends with.

Forgive yourself — even if the other person doesn't

While you can't control how the other person will react to your apology, or if the relationship can be mended, after you've said your peace in a coherent and thoughtful way, it's essential to move toward forgiving yourself. In Dr. Cohen's eyes, the first step to gaining self-forgiveness is to have "empathic understanding for your wrongdoing." This means "knowing why you behaved in a certain way, it does not mean validating or okaying your actions." From there, Dr. Russell suggests you can go even deeper by actually apologizing to — and then forgiving — yourself. Doing so acts as an admission that you "did not live up to [your] best behaviour or live out [your] best self," in this particular instance, and helps to "re-establish inner harmony."

Make change

There's a reason our mothers drilled the ancient idiom "actions speak louder than words" into our heads the first time we tearfully proclaimed that we'd never, ever do something again: it's true! Meyers notes that outlining "the concrete steps that will be taken to right [a] wrong where possible and ensure it does not happen again" in your initial apology can go a long way, "but what matters most… is delivering on those promises." Not only will this demonstrate, in clear, measurable ways, that your contrition was sincere, "changing your ways can provide proof that you meant what you said in your apology," adds Dr. Cohen.  

Of course, these tips are not applicable in all circumstances. Sometimes even the most perfectly executed apology is not enough to right the wrong. But if we open ourselves to the idea of improving our apologies, maybe forgiveness — of self, and of others — will become a little easier, too.