After a stressful year when COVID-19 disrupted our lives, nerves are understandably frayed. Whether dealing with pandemic-related difficulties or other concerns, there have probably been instances where you weren’t your best self. You might have some relationships—with relatives, friends, partners, and colleagues—that need healing and reconciliation. This is where figuring out how to apologize comes in handy. No matter who is in the wrong, sometimes nothing soothes animosity faster than saying “I’m sorry,” but screwing up your apology can make things worse.
In A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, Molly Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Boston, delineates the elements of a solid apology. She explains that you should seek to understand the other person’s injury, offer sincere regret, make restitution, and show it’ll never happen again. As you can imagine, it’s easy to falter (especially when hurt feelings or defensiveness are involved). So we’ve asked Dr. Howes and other experts for a few tips to keep in mind when you’re apologizing.
1. Listen closely before rushing to apologize.
Sometimes quick apologies make sense. Say you’re in the market and bump into someone; it doesn’t take much to say “sorry” and help them pick up their groceries. But in more complicated matters, rushing toward an apology can be insincere. So what should you do instead? “First, calmly ask what’s going on to understand how the other person feels,” Dr. Howes tells SELF. “Then shut up and listen, even if it’s uncomfortable.”
Active listening—which involves making eye contact or otherwise making it clear that you’re completely tuned in and really focusing on what they’re saying instead of preparing your rebuttal—helps you truly understand the impact of your missteps. With this insight, you can make your apology more specific, heartfelt, and effective. You can affirm what you’ve heard from the other person and ask clarifying questions as necessary. The attentiveness also helps you keep the same mistake from happening again.
2. Prepare your apology in advance when possible.
Not everyone communicates the same way. If you want forgiveness from someone you offended, whenever possible, connect via their comfort zone, not yours, whether it’s (safely) in person, on the phone, in an epistolary missive, or via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or or other multimedia. “If it’s in writing, show the draft to someone you trust before sending,” Vatsal Thakkar, M.D., a Connecticut-based psychiatrist, tells SELF. “If it’s in person, write down your apology first to organize your thoughts and get it right.” While forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, this small step can help smooth things over.
3. Be specific and detailed in your apology.
The declaration that you’re sorrowful isn’t always enough. If someone has taken the time to explain how you’ve hurt them, then you can mirror that vulnerability by expressing your regret, explaining why it happened, and showing how you’ll repair the damage.
After you explain yourself, the key is to emphasize that you understand how you’ve harmed the person (which should be clear if you’ve been listening actively) and then follow up with how you’ll avoid making the same mistake in the future. If, for instance, someone is upset that you haven’t returned their calls, you might say: “I’m sorry I was unresponsive. I was working overtime, but that doesn’t excuse anything. You are important to me, and I understand how my actions caused you pain. In the future, I’ll shoot you a text ASAP to let you know when I’m free to call.”
It’s also okay if you can’t quite explain why the transgression happened. “If you have no idea why you screwed up, admit it,” Dr. Thakkar says. Coming clean can help restore closeness.
4. Try not to turn your apology into a debate.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you” or “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think you’d mind” can undermine your apology and make the person you’ve hurt feel invalidated. Doubting someone’s hurt means you’re not taking responsibility for what you did. “Our impulse is to defend ourselves with conditional limited contrition and disclaimers,” Dr. Thakkar explains. Don’t be ambivalent. Be declarative.
It’s also tempting to turn an apology into a chance to rehash old grievances. It’s important to remember that an apology isn’t a debate. It’s a conversation that often involves putting someone else’s feelings first, so make sure you’re not using the apology to focus on your emotions.
5. Remember that actions speak louder than (apologetic) words.
Despite eloquent verbal regrets, action might heal a rift better. So try finding a solution to address any grievances. An old friend felt hurt when I blew off reading her memoir-in-progress. I didn’t just apologize; I asked if she wanted to bring pages into my writing workshop, to make up for my insensitivity. “Susie, I’d love to,” she responded. Hearing my childhood nickname confirmed I was back in, but I still made sure to be very supportive this time. Offer validation or a solution to compensate for the suffering you caused.
6. Be patient after you apologize.
Healing a relationship may require rejections and repeated attempts. In Judaism there’s a teaching that dictates you should offer sincere remorse three times. If it’s not accepted, the unforgiving person has to apologize for not forgiving, Rabbi Joseph Krakoff, senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, tells SELF. The lesson is that you should do your best to make amends even when complete reconciliation isn’t guaranteed. “Once you express regrets, keep your heart open,” Rabbi Krakoff says, adding that forgiveness might come even if it’s not immediate.
7. Remember that it’s never too late to seek forgiveness.
Sometimes people leave our lives before we can figure out how to apologize, or things get so contentious that apologizing isn’t possible. If you’re struggling with how best to make amends or if you’re in a situation where making amends isn’t possible, don’t bury those feelings inside.
Instead, discuss your problem with a relative, therapist, mentor, or religious leader. They might be able to help you come to terms with not having forgiveness. They might even help you heal an estrangement or, in the most extreme cases, act as a forgiveness surrogate who would stand in if the person you’d like to apologize to isn’t able to speak with you (for example, if they’ve passed away).
In his hospice work, Rabbi Krakoff asks relatives to tell their kin, “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.” He explains that a daughter estranged from her father found comfort in this deathbed prayer. “It gave her a sense of closure,” Rabbi Krakoff explained. “It allowed her to forgive him last-minute, mourn, and handle grief better.”
Publisher’s Note: This article was originally published on February 12, 2021 on Self.com by Susan Shapiro. Ms. Shapiro, is an award-winning Manhattan writing professor and the bestselling author of several books her parents hate, including Unhooked, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up and The Byline Bible. Her new memoir is The Forgiveness Tour: How To Find the Perfect Apology.