Let’s face it — most of us aren’t going to go very far in life without having to make a few apologies along the way. While some neanderthals may see an apology as a sign of weakness, most people recognize that saying, “I’m sorry” is a simple way to smooth over a difficult situation when you were in the wrong (and it even works when you may be right, but just want to move on in your relationship with the other person).
Apologies are one of those things we’re rarely formally taught how to do well. We often just muddle through them, mimicking the behaviors we’ve seen in others, and feeling like we just want to get it over with as quickly as possible. However, taking a few moments to really understand the value of a sincere apology can make your apologizing far more effective and more likely to accepted.
Here’s how to make an adept, sincere apology.
1. Apologies that are accepted are most often sincere, and sincere apologies are more likely to be accepted.
Other people seem to have a “sincerity detector,” so a fake or insincere apology won’t get very far. While some research has shown that a sincere apology has no more likelihood of being accepted than an insincere apology, apologies that are accepted are more likely to be sincere ones (Hatcher, 2011).
How do you make a sincere apology?
- Acknowledge what you did was wrong
- Accept responsibility for your action
- Make attempts to atone for the wrong you committed
- Give assurances that the transgression will not happen again
Other research suggests sincerity is indeed an important factor for forgiveness (Noble, 2006; Volkmann, 2010), so don’t think sincerity is optional. If you can’t give a sincere apology that you really believe you mean, you should probably hold off on apologizing until you can.
2. The worse the transgression, the more important the sincere apology.
Noble (2006) suggests in a study of 239 undergraduates that the severity of offense was the strongest predictor of apology acceptance. In other words, if the transgression for which you’re apologizing is a big one, the apology is going to be far more important than for small transgressions. And — according to this small pilot study anyways — it’s more likely to be accepted.
3. Avoid non-apology wording.
Some people make the mistake of thinking they are apologizing, and yet not really apologizing for the act they are accused of. You can see this in examples such as, “I’m sorry if what I said upset you,” or “I’m sorry you took it the wrong way,” or “I’m sorry that you didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”
You’re not apologizing for the other person’s feelings or for “making” them feel bad. You’re apologizing for your own behavior or things said. It may seem like an unimportant distinction, but it goes back to sincerity. The receiver of your apology has to hear that you are taking responsibility for your actions.
4. Give them some space before making an apology.
People often need time to come down from the emotional intensity of an argument or angry situation. Give the person you want to apologize some space and time before approaching them with your apology. Ensure you take responsibility for your actions, and that you’re empathetic to their point of view.
On the flip side of this, don’t wait 2 weeks to apologize. A day or two may be best (although individuals will vary), giving each side time to think about what was done or said, and to gain some insight and perspective into the situation and their motivations.
5. Be specific and don’t over-apologize.
Specific apologies are best. Apologizing for all the past hurts you’ve caused another person, or for all your previous transgressions has a lot less impact than apologizing for the specific behavior or situation you’re taking responsibility for.
Don’t over-apologize or generalize the behavior you’re apologizing for to everything you do (or that you’re a “bad person”). People want to be reassured that this was a specific issue that can be fixed.
With these few tips in mind, you can make more effective apologies that are more likely to be forgiven in the future.
Hatcher, I. (2011). Evaluations of apologies: The effects of apology sincerity and acceptance motivation. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 71, 7087.
Noble, N.D. (2006). The use of apologies in romantic relationships. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 67, 2283.
Volkmann, J.R. (2010). A longitudinal analysis of the forgiveness process in romantic relationships. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 70, 7274.