How to Apologise
An apology may help you move on from the pain caused by a damaging act. That applies to both the person giving and receiving the apology. Perhaps, you need the wrongdoer to acknowledge your suffering and to accept responsibility for it. Or maybe you feel genuine remorse for something you have done and need forgiveness to move on.
But it’s not always that simple! Apologies can be insincere and pointless without some other form of redress or the person you want to apologise to may not be willing to accept it. Sometimes, conflict runs so deep, it can lead to strong emotional reactions which keep us entrenched in our positions.
What is an apology?
Aaron Lazare defines it as an “encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offence or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved.” It can be verbal, written or non-verbal and the specific context of the apology may determine whether it includes an explanation of the offence, an expression of shame or guilt, assurances that the same act will not be committed again and crucially, whether remedial measures will be taken by the offended party. One study has found that apologies are received as most sincere when they contain an explanation of the event, an offer to repair the damage and acknowledge responsibility, which suggests that these elements are more important than simply expressing regret or requesting forgiveness. Using the word ‘sorry’ may or may not convey an apology.
What will an apology achieve ?
If you are considering giving an apology to somebody that you have harmed, the first thing you should do is congratulate yourself for being so self-aware. It’s not easy to hold yourself to account and an apology is the most profound expression of that. In a way, an apology is as much to yourself as to others for your own failings.
But in order to impact positively, it needs to be given sincerely. What’s the point, otherwise?
Apologies express accountability, regret, remorse and reassure that the harmful act will not be repeated. They are most sincere when there is no disagreement about what actually happened. If you say for example, “I am sorry that you believe I hurt you”, you are not agreeing that you (1) acted in a particular way; that (2) resulted in harm. So how can this be a sincere expression of regret?
The aim of an apology is to re-establish a relationship broken by a harmful act. It is to restore trust and to give back the offended person the dignity that they feel has been lost. It is meant to put right what went wrong and this may involve taking extra measures.
It is not about feeling superior or humiliation. It is a deeply human experience that we all go through.
Tips on giving a sincere apology
- Try to understand what does the recipient need from the apology? You could ask them whether they would like to discuss what happened and to explore your mutual perceptions of the event. Ask them what an apology will do for them so that you can understand how it is best to give it.
- Be sincere and honest with your emotions. If you feel remorseful, say it. If you find it difficult to talk about the subject because it evokes feelings of shame, acknowledge that. You can be in a vulnerable place when giving or receiving an apology so give yourself a safe space to understand what you are feeling.
- Acknowledge your responsibility and express remorse. If you are in a position to repair any damage, you should offer to.
- Listen to the recipient. Ask them if the apology is acceptable to them. This is where things may get tricky. The answer may be that they want you to do something unreasonable or humiliating to punish you. If this happens, you should not be afraid to refuse.
- Remember, you may not repair a relationship just because you have apologised. You may not get forgiveness and for the person receiving the apology, they may not even wish to have any form of reconciliation. Be prepared for rejection.
This is where mediation could help. Apologies that are negotiated, explored, understood and tested through dialogue are usually the most satisfactory and a neutral third party may help both parties to reconcile with an apology.
What are your experiences ? Let me know !
 Aaron Lazare, On Apology (Oxford, 2004) 23; Michael Cunningham, States of Apology (Manchester University Press, 2014) 8
 Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin and Robert B. Lount Jr., “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies” (2016) Negotiation and Conflict Management Research 9(2) 177-196
 Ibid 25
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Thanks for your great advice. I really struggle with empathy when I am the one who caused the hurt in the first place. I feel so bad/guilty and can’t get out of my own way. This has caused long-term struggles with my spouse and I so want to support her better. Any advice?
Hi there ! it sounds to me that it’s not the empathy that is the struggle for you, it’s the discomfort you feel when you know you have caused hurt to others. There are a couple of things you can do to address that. Firstly, it’s perfectly normal and a recognition of your humanity to feel bad when you cause somebody suffering. Secondly, sometimes, no matter how hard you try and protect the other person or prevent hurting them, this cannot be avoided. That happens sometimes, when we tell somebody the truth or we explain to them how we feel (e.g. I want to break up with you because I am not happy with you), for example. I am of course, presuming that you did not intend to hurt that person.
If you want to support your spouse when they are hurt by something you have done, a good starting point is to communicate what is going on for you when you try and do that. I have written about constructive communication in my blog and by expressing your emotions and the difficulties you feel in that moment, you open the other person up to hear your own pain. So, you could say something like this, ” I love you and want to support you when I know you are in pain but I don’t know how to do that. I myself, feel vulnerable/ bad / guilty about causing you to suffer which is why it is difficult to listen to your discomfort. This stops me from offering you support. ”
Don’t stop there though. Ask your spouse what they need from you to feel supported. Does your spouse need a hug or your presence? Does your spouse just need you to listen without commenting or providing help ? Is an apology really needed or can you show that you acknowledge your actions and the harm caused (intentional or not) in any other way?
This requires a great deal of self awareness on your part. As I wrote above, causing somebody to suffer is sometimes unavoidable and conflict is a natural and normal part of human relationships providing of course, that it does not become destructive. You may regret your actions or review what you did or said to cause harm but if you feel a crippling amount of guilt around that and it gets in the way of meaningful relationships, it may be worth talking that over with a therapist. Good luck and I wish you well!
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