How To Say Sorry: 10 qualities of a Good Apology

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Here’s how to say sorry and mean it, according to research. It will help you make an apology your partner deserves and hopes for.

How would your partner know that your apology is sincere and you deserve forgiveness? Apologies or “I am sorry” gestures are day-to-day ways to repair, restore, or improve relationships. Sometimes, a mistake demands compensation for damages. However, apologies are not purely transactional. In relationships, the sentiment, acknowledgment, and motivation to say sorry is about trust, respect, and care.

There are many ways to show you are sorry. The most common way is a casual variant of the sentence “I’m sorry” or the professional counterpart “We apologize for the inconvenience”. Just a few words may not be enough, though; a lot depends on context, meaning, cost of the mistake, nature of the transgression, and the victim’s readiness to forgive. For example, forgetting to buy toilet paper is a relatively low-cost mistake that most people can quickly remedy or compensate for. However, cheating on a romantic partner costs a lot more than forgetting to buy toilet paper and is far more difficult to forgive[1].

Why is it difficult to say you are sorry?

Researcher Karina Schumann[2] says there are 3 reasons why it is difficult to apologize when an apology is warranted.

  1. The offender doesn’t care enough about the victim or the relationship.
  2. The apology appears like a threat to the offender’s self-image because apologizing means acknowledging your own shortcomings and facing guilt/remorse. Those are negative emotions people like to avoid.
  3. The offender feels the apology will be ineffective for reasons like a history of not receiving forgiveness or the victim is too angry to even acknowledge the apology.

You don’t have to always apologize; You don’t always have to go in-depth with an apology for trivial things. But when you have made a big mistake that hurts people, it’s best to give a sincere apology. Recognize when you don’t need to apologize vs. when you are avoiding an apology. Failing to say sorry[3] usually only increases your victim’s anger, especially if your partner needs you to acknowledge their concerns.

10 ingredients of a good apology

1. Be honest and show why you are sorry.

A good apology needs to be clear and transparent[4]. Your intentions and reasons to say sorry should directly convey that you care about your partner’s well-being. Saying why you are sorry shows that you have understood your partner’s point of view and needs. You could begin with sentences like “I am saying sorry for the mistake I made and how my actions made you feel.” You can then explain you have understood it by paraphrasing the problem.

2. Acknowledge the mistake in direct terms without excuses.

It is best to avoid any form of justification or excuse while presenting an apology. If you’ve hurt someone, you have the option to choose between showing emotional vulnerability by giving a comprehensive apology or showing defensiveness by using justifications. Research shows[5] that a person’s “attachment avoidance” level, which describes a tendency to stay away from emotions & commitment, plays a role. People with high attachment avoidance could find it harder to show vulnerability while apologizing, making it harder for them to show genuine regret & remorse.

3. Ask for forgiveness using empathy, compassion, and sensitivity.

Different people have different ideas[6] about politeness and what is appropriate politeness in a context. Plus, the concept of politeness depends on cultural standards. With that in mind, ask for forgiveness by understanding your partner’s expectations. Be sensitive to their perceptions and be mindful of how you express your apology. Although it is a cliche, monitor your tone and body language while showing remorse and use empathy to choose your words. Ask for forgiveness, but respect their need for space and time to offer it.

4. Acknowledge the consequences of your mistake or the hurt you’ve caused/enabled.

When a mistake makes someone angry, they are hoping to see a change in behavior because they don’t feel valued enough. To resolve that conflict, apologies need to carefully include how you could address that change and make them feel valued.

5. Accept responsibility for your conscious & unconscious actions & inactions.

An honest apology begins with a clear expression that acknowledges the mistake or hurtful action. However, accepting your mistake can be difficult because it feels threatening and brings negative emotions to the surface. Accepting responsibility for a mistake is like confronting yourself in someone else’s presence. According to research[7] on personality beliefs, those who believe personality can change tend to accept their mistake more easily than those who believe their personality is fixed. Those who believe their personality is not fixed think that accepting responsibility is a chance to grow and improve the relationship.

6. Match your partner’s apology preferences

People care about apologies but they have a preference for how they like their “I am sorry” gestures. According to a study[8], victims are more likely to forgive the offender if the offender says sorry in a way that matches the victim’s preferred style. If your partner prefers long letters, or a high-attention date, or expensive gifts, or just an honest remorseful sentence, go with something that matches their preference. If they like you making a big fuss to repair the relationship, do it. Chances of them forgiving you would increase.

7. Work to improve the quality of your relationship

When someone repeatedly makes mistakes in a relationship or neglects the partner, chances are that there is a lot of unrest and the relationship is not satisfying. Apologies in strained relationships can lose their effectiveness. Research suggests[9] that partners are more willing to forgive after an apology if the relationship satisfaction is high. Keeping your boyfriend or wife happy in the relationship means taking effort. Effort usually shows that you care about your partner’s needs and the quality of the relationship. By putting in effort in the relationship[10] to reduce conflict, it is easier to earn forgiveness.

8. Promise to put in the effort to not repeat the mistake.

When effort goes into saying sorry or the apology is “costly,” it communicates your intention to reconcile with your partner, according to a brain imaging study[11]. Relationships need work and your effort to repair a relationship to seek forgiveness and restore balance shows you care for each other’s well-being.

9. Put in an effort to mitigate the hurt or repair damages.

If your partner is angry because of what you did, an apology might not be enough. According to a study[12], apologies don’t reduce the experience of your partner’s anger. So, additional effort is needed to address the reasons for anger. This can be done by directly addressing hurt feelings or damage done.

10. Make your apology costly and demonstrate the price you will pay.

Apologies that are costly to the transgressor are typically considered sincere. The costly signalling model[13] of saying sorry shows that people consider apologies that come with a big figurative “price tag” are more genuine than those apologies which don’t require effort or cost something valuable. Losing something significant because you are sorry or as a way to show you are sorry comes off as sincere in almost all parts of the world. It shows that you care more about the apology than the loss of something important. Plus, humans tend to value losing something a lot more than gaining something equivalent. The price you pay for your remorse is a great way to show how much others mean to you.

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Common mistakes while saying “I am sorry”

  1. You wait too long to say sorry. A good apology respects time.
  2. You push and nag your partner to forgive you. Don’t make any apology about you needing forgiveness. Make it about their feelings. So respect their time & space to forgive (or not forgive) you on their own terms.
  3. You avoid clear sentences to acknowledge the mistake. Use first-person pronouns to directly state what you did wrong.
  4. You justify it with something that makes you less responsible.
  5. You try to balance out your transgression with some other transgression your partner has committed. Don’t try to get even or balance mistakes with mistakes.
  6. You try to make unrealistic and shallow promises which don’t inspire trust.

How to say sorry to your romantic partner [example]

Based on the 10 key ingredients of a good apology, here are some sentences that will help you seek forgiveness.

Case: You failed to stand up for your boyfriend when some friends humiliated him for his lack of achievement.

Let’s construct an apology for a girlfriend/boyfriend based on the 10 points listed above.

  1. Be honest and show why you are sorry.
    • I am sorry I didn’t have your back when others were making jokes at your expense.
  2. Acknowledge the mistake in direct terms without excuses.
    • It isn’t ok to humiliate anyone for their career choices and priorities. I should’ve had your back and told them they were wrong and supported you. I am proud of you and my behavior did not show that. There is no excuse to justify my neglect.
  3. Ask for forgiveness using empathy, compassion, and sensitivity.
    • I understand you are feeling upset about how they acted and how I acted. I should’ve paid more attention to what’s happening around me. I’m sorry I failed to do that. I hope you forgive me, I care about you.
  4. Acknowledge the consequences of your mistake or the hurt you’ve caused/enabled.
    • I accept you would’ve felt less bad if you had my support.
  5. Accept responsibility for your conscious & unconscious actions & inactions.
    • I accept responsibility for failing to show my support.
  6. Match your partner’s apology preferences
    • (If your partner likes having a face to face meeting, take out the time to meet exclusively for apologizing. Make it a priority as timely apologies are more effective than the “too little too late” scenario.) Can we please meet, I want to honestly apologize to you for my behavior. I hope you give me the chance, your well-being is important to me and I would like to show you I care.
  7. Work to improve the quality of your relationship
    • You’ve felt hurt because of my actions and I can see how it has strained our relationship. Then, without bragging, show that you are working to improve your relationship.
  8. Promise to put in the effort to not repeat the mistake.
    • I am going to work on not repeating this. It might take some introspection to realize why I would neglect your well-being but I will put in the effort because it is important to both of us.
  9. Put in an effort to mitigate the hurt or repair damages.
    • Let me do something for you so you feel better. Then confidently demonstrate your actions in a natural way.
  10. Make your apology costly and demonstrate the price you will pay.
    • You confront your friends and tell them what they did wrong, even if it makes you feel like you are losing some friends. Put in the effort to confront. Put your partner’s needs ahead of the price you have to pay to make things right.

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