How to Apologize Well and Repair a Relationship
People are sorry all over the place.
Some apologies are demanded. Some are expected. Some are politically played.
There’s a new celebrity apology every month and some get it right and some may never recover.
There are angry and flippant apologies, “I’m sorry, Ok?!?!”
There are fauxpologies, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
There are meme apologies, “Sorry, not sorry.” There’s the whiny apology, “But I said I’m sorry!”
There are apologies for indecisions, interruptions and bumping into people. Some people apologize out of habit, but really it may be out of insecurity. They may be overcompensating for fear that they have offended someone when in fact they haven’t.
What is an apology?
The dictionary defines an apology as, “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.” I believe it’s necessary when you know that you did something that hurt someone, whether it was intended or unintentional.
Beware the Fake Apology
Often those above apologies land flat, seem inauthentic and lack any significant meaning. In many of these cases, no apology is better than a fake, insincere or overstated apology. In fact, those could do more harm to a relationship than any good.
But what makes a good apology?
We all know that talk is cheap. Researchers from Ohio State University found that the more elements an apology contained, the more credible, effective, and adequate it was perceived to be.
The researchers identified six major components of an apology:
- Express regret
- Explain what went wrong
- Acknowledge responsibility
- Declare repentance
- Offer repair
- Request forgiveness
The research found that the most important component was to acknowledge responsibility (admitting you made the mistake), and the second most crucial is an offer of repair.
Let’s unpack each one of these, and I’ve added a few more.
Timing is important
The sooner you can offer a sincerely felt apology, the sooner you can help your loved one begin to heal. The longer you wait, the more you risk causing excessive pain and perhaps long-term damage.
Whether your actions were unintentional or on purpose, you harmed someone you care about. If they have any significance whatsoever to you, you owe them an apology.
Like Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word…” But this is the place to start. Start by simply saying you’re sorry.
Apologies are best-delivered face-to-face, preferably with eye contact. If that’s not a possibility, take the time and write it out. This is often practiced particularly when the person is no longer available or deceased.
Explain what went wrong
Keep it simple and to the point. You don’t want to make excuses here or excuse your actions. Just state the facts. Show what the motivations were behind your ill-received actions.
You need to be patient with the person you are apologizing to. All too often I see someone attempting to make an apology in order to “fix it” right away. They do this because they don’t want the other person to feel any pain.
I can understand that but consider this. If they are in pain, they need to work it out. Give them the time and the grace that they need to move through their upset and to get to forgiveness.
A true, heartfelt apology takes some level of courage. To admit that you were wrong, share your shame and take responsibility for your actions is a vulnerable place to be.
According to Aaron Lazare, author of “On Apology,” he states that in acknowledging your shame and wrongdoing you give the offended the power to forgive. It is this exchange that is at the heart of the healing process.
While the word repentance may bring up religious ideas, it’s really about the sincerity of regret and remorse. Repentance is an honest, regretful acknowledgment of the wrongdoing with a commitment to change.
Repentance is a declaration that you suffered either in shame, guilt or anxiety over the potential loss of the relationship.
If circumstances of your wrongdoing warrant it, you may need to make amends and offer repair. What can you do to make up this wrongdoing? What can you do to set it straight? By doing so you’re trying to make things right and heal the damaged relationship.
In a sense, this portion of the apology is making reparations or settling a debt. You may need to pay for the missing or broken item or take your friend out to lunch. Show your thoughtfulness and in some situations, you may need to ask, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do?”
Settle the case to make it right but to also clear your conscious.
Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past. – Tryon Edwards
This may be the hardest part of the apology because there is always the chance that the person you are asking forgiveness from may say no. This is also a moment of vulnerability because they see you for who you are (flaws and all).
Maybe you’ve let them down too many times before. What if the offense just simply crossed the line for them and there’s no going back?
Understand that they may not be open to your apology right now
Some may just not be able to forgive.
For those that don’t forgive you, really listen to what they have to say. Empathize and have compassion for their feelings, after all, you had a hand in the situation. They may be in pain and suffering emotional damage. However, it’s up to them to let go of their hurt or anger and that may take some time.
For many forgiveness may be a marathon, not a sprint.
Can you correct your behaviors to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? Can you forgive yourself? What can you learn from this situation, forgiven or not?
A proper apology shows good character, shows true remorse, a willingness to be vulnerable, and communicates that your relationship with this person with the other is truly meaningful to you.
Conduct a good apology and hopefully, the relationship can be repaired and trust can be regained. Better for them. Better for you.
In the end, we’re all human and can make mistakes. If you ever need guidance or support during challenging times, I invite you to contact me for a 15-minute consultation.