How to say, “I am Sorry”?
How to say, “I am Sorry”? Over the years, people have come up with some truly awful apologies. From classic non-apologies to evasive excuses, and flimsy corporate promises, it’s all too easy to give a bad apology. But researchers have found that good apologies generally share certain elements and thoughtfully considering these factors can help you make amends in a wide variety of situations. Since public apologies have their own unique complications, we’re going to focus on some person-to-person examples.
So, picture this: your new office has free ice cream sandwiches in the communal fridge—or at least that’s what you thought. But on Friday, when you’re helping your co-worker Terence set up another colleague’s birthday party, he finds that half the ice cream he bought for the celebration is gone. While this is obviously an embarrassing accident, coming forward and apologizing is still the right thing to do.
Your mistake is due to lack of knowledge
Understanding and accepting responsibility for your actions is what some researchers call the “centerpiece of an apology.” But it’s okay if this feels difficult and vulnerable— it’s supposed to be! The costly nature of apologies is part of what makes them meaningful. So, while you might be tempted to defend your actions as accidental, it’s important to remember that a good apology isn’t about making you feel better. It’s about seeking to understand the perspective of the wronged party and repair the damage to your relationship. This means that while clarifying your intentions non-defensively can be helpful, your mistake being an accident shouldn’t absolve you from offering a sincere apology. But what if your mistake wasn’t an accident?
What if your mistake wasn’t an accident?
Consider this: you promised your friend Marie that you’ll attend her championship football match. But another friend just called to offer you an extra ticket for your favorite musician’s farewell tour. You know this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and you can’t pass it up. Plus, you figure Marie wouldn’t mind if you miss the game—she always has plenty of fans supporting her. But the next day, Marie tells you she was really hurt when she didn’t see you in the crowd.
You feel terrible for upsetting her and genuinely want to apologize. But while you regret hurting Marie, you’re not actually sure if you made the wrong choice. So how can you reach beyond that terrible non-apology, “I’m sorry YOU feel this way”? In situations like this, it can be easy to focus on rationalizing your actions when you should be working to understand the other person’s perspective.
Consider asking Marie how you made them feel to better understand your offense. In this case, Marie might explain that she was disappointed you broke your promise, and she was really counting on your support. This kind of clarity can help you recognize your wrongdoing and honestly accept how your actions caused harm. Then you can frame your apology around addressing her concerns, perhaps by admitting that it was wrong of you to break your promise, and you’re sorry you weren’t there for her.
Acknowledge and say Sorry
Clearly acknowledging wrongdoing indicates that you know exactly how you messed up, and it can give Marie faith that you’ll behave differently moving forward. But it’s always helpful to indicate exactly how you’ll change and what you’ll do to repair the damage caused by your offense. Researchers call this the “offer of repair,” and it’s often rated as one of the most critical parts of an apology.
In some cases, these gestures are straight forward, like offering to replace the ice cream you eat. However, with less tangible transgressions, this might need to be more symbolic. Like expressing your love and respect for someone you wronged. One common offer of repair is a verbal commitment not to make the same mistake again. But promising to do better only works if you actually do better. Taking the victim’s perspective, accepting responsibility, and making concrete offers of repair are just a few of the elements of a good apology. But remember, apologies aren’t about getting forgiveness and moving on; they’re about expressing remorse and accepting accountability. And the best apologies are just the first step on the road to reconciliation.