It’s hard to say “I’m Sorry.” And it’s especially hard to do it well. (Sorry to say, most of us are lousy at it.) Apologizing takes humility, courage, and good timing. Here’s how you—and your kids—can master a sincere mea culpa.

By Jennifer King Lindley
Updated April 15, 2016
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Illustration: sorry key on keyboard
Credit: Christopher Silas Neal

I’m sorry. These two little words can act as the superglue of relationships, repairing everything from stealing the last brownie to, in the most hopeful scenario, painful betrayals. “None of us are perfect. You have to be able to apologize when you mess up. Otherwise you’ll scatter bad feelings wherever you go,” says Lauren Bloom, an interfaith minister, an attorney, and the author of The Art of the Apology. So why does everyone from that red-faced kid on the baseball field to your brooding spouse have such a hard time spitting out the words? And when it’s your turn to make amends, how do you offer a truly meaningful apology that doesn’t sound as if you’re just fishing for a quick get-out-of-jail-free card? (Hint: “Mistakes were made” doesn’t cut it.) The following pages will guide you. It’s never easy—no matter how old you are—but if you screw up, just apologize. And try again.

Why Apologizing Is Good for You

Humans are wired for it. Conciliatory gestures, like apologies, evolved to help us restore important relationships that have been damaged by conflict, according to Michael McCullough, Ph.D., the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. (Chimpanzees, for example, often embrace former adversaries after a fight.) Apologies also boost our trust in the other person. A study by Harvard Business School found that when a researcher prefaced a request to use a stranger’s cell phone with an unsolicited and unrelated apology—“I’m sorry about the rain!”—he was offered the phone 47 percent of the time compared with just 9 percent when he didn’t first voice the regret. Even this impersonal apology was enough to demonstrate his concern for the other person’s situation, thus increasing the stranger’s trust, the researchers theorized. (Such instant bonding may be why we often have the impulse to apologize for things that are clearly not our fault: “I’m sorry this elevator is taking so long,” you offer to the sighing passenger beside you.) In addition to strengthening relationships, a good apology has benefits for both individual parties. For the wounded, receiving an apology can be a first step toward forgiveness, a state linked to a host of benefits, from a lower risk of depression to improved cardiovascular health. For the offender, for whom it’s painful to realize that you’ve caused another harm, apologies act as a salve for a troubled conscience.

Why are we so loath to do it? “We want the social harmony that apologizing brings. We just don’t like the act of apologizing itself,” says Ryan Fehr, Ph.D., a professor of management at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who has done extensive research on the subject. “That’s because we like to think of ourselves as decent people. I’m a good person. I was just distracted when I did that. The act of clearly claiming responsibility for an offense can be difficult because you have to change how you view yourself,” he says. “So we are better at making excuses than we are at apologies.” The thing is, you’re fooling yourself: A sincere apology can actually restore your self-worth. “It clearly separates the person from the offense. Your action was bad, but you’re not a bad person,” says Fehr. Another obstacle to apologizing: feeling vulnerable. You acted like a drunken baboon at your in-laws’ dinner party, and revisiting it in an apology makes you feel ashamed. It will blow over, right? Well, your in-laws aren’t going to simply forget, and “you just draw out the guilt and embarrassment the longer you don’t apologize,” says Bloom. So what are you waiting for?

Strategies for Success

For minor infractions, like being 10 minutes late for a coffee date with a friend, a rueful “I’m so sorry—traffic was nuts!” will do it. But, says etiquette expert Arden Clise, the author of Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth: Etiquette for Professional Success, “the bigger the offense, the bigger the apology required.” That holds true whether you are apologizing to a friend, a coworker, or, often toughest of all, your spouse. Experts agree that the apologies most likely to be accepted by the other person include some key elements, outlined here. But take heart, even a clumsy attempt can be powerful if heartfelt. “People highly value sincerity,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist in the greater Philadelphia area and the author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety. “Being honest by saying, ‘Gosh, this is so hard. I’m not quite sure how to say this to you,’ demonstrates how important you take this.”

Make it timely. In general, you want to apologize as soon as possible after an incident. A delay can indicate insincerity. Why did it take you so long? But if emotions are running high, “wait until the lava stops flowing,” says Bloom. Cool off so you can apologize sincerely. That said, there is no statute of limitations. If a friend has fallen to the bottom of your priority list and you haven’t called her in months, she may be impressed that you overcame those months of silence to make the effort.

Express regret. It’s basic but crucial: State how much you regret what you did. Otherwise you come across as only trying to justify your bad behavior. Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., a psychologist in North Carolina and a coauthor of When Sorry Isn’t Enough, favors opening with the phrase “I apologize” instead of “Sorry.” “Sorry is a very vanilla word—we use it every time we bump into someone’s cart in the supermarket,” she says. Then focus on the other person, not on how bad you feel: “I apologize that I snapped at you during our meeting this morning. I was totally out of line. I can understand why you would be upset about how I acted.” To pave the way for a more heartfelt apology, try a little self-affirmation beforehand. A study published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology asked some subjects to write about an aspect of their identities that was very important to them (for example, creativity or membership in a close-knit family). Another group did no such warm-up. Afterward all the subjects were told to think of a time when they had hurt someone but had left it unresolved. Then they were instructed to write an apology. The result: Those who had done the feel-good affirmation beforehand composed better, less defensive apologies than those who had not. “By affirming another source of worth in their lives, people felt less threatened about the idea of apol­ogizing,” says Karina Schumann, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Take responsibility. Use the active voice, says Fehr. (Wrong: “It’s unfortunate that there was a misunderstanding.” Right: “I’m so sorry that I didn’t invite you to our wedding and you felt excluded.”) Be specific so the victim knows you are aware of exactly how you have wronged him and doesn’t think you are just trying to sweep things aside with an off-the-rack nicety. Often the other person is not blameless. You may fear that apologizing means you are assuming all the fault in an ugly back-and-forth. Even so, be the big person and start the ball rolling, says Bloom: “Apologize for your part in the problem: ‘I should not have started yelling. I’m sorry that I turned what should have been a chance for us to work together into a fight.’ ” Often your willingness to own up will break down the other person’s defenses, and she will follow suit. Says Chansky, “We are afraid we are going to get sliced and diced. Instead, apologizing can be a moment of real connection.” That’s true even if you think you are the one in this mess who deserves the real apology. “Ask yourself, ‘What is going to make me feel better sooner? Being on hold? Or taking action?’ ” Chansky says. “Don’t think about what’s most fair. Think about what’s most freeing.”

Listen. Apologies are not meant to be monologues. “The best apologies are conversations,” says Bloom. The offended person needs to be able to air how the wrong made her feel so she can put it behind her. As painful as it might be, you need to listen to the other person’s side and try to empathize with her experience.

Make amends. Excluded a friend from a girls’ dinner? Make a date with her. Lost your sister’s yoga mat? Deliver your regret with a new one in hand. But, again, bring your listening ear. “If you broke one of your mother’s treasured family heirlooms, she isn’t wanting to hear you just say, ‘Whoops, here’s $20,’ ” says Fehr. She wants you to express concern for how upset she is and how it could affect your relationship with her (and maybe to offer to wield the Elmer’s). If you missed your daughter’s recital, offer to watch her perform in the living room. Bloom is not a fan of sending flowers. “It can come off as a bribe,” she says.

Don’t ask for forgiveness. An apology is a debt that needs to be paid, says Bloom. “That is why we say, ‘I owe you an apology.’ Forgive­ness is a gift,” she says. The other person may feel put on the spot if you say, “Do you forgive me?” It can seem as if you have an ulterior motive, says Fehr: “I want you to forgive me so I don’t have to be in this uncomfortable situation any­more.” You can express a wish. “I hope you can forgive me.” A safer tack may be to conclude by letting the person know how much you value the relationship, says Thomas: “It pains me that I hurt you because you are my best friend. I don’t laugh as much with anyone else.”

Prepare for it to be harder with your spouse. “There’s so much history and baggage,” says Chansky. If you said something nasty in anger at dinner last night, your spouse will now be scrolling through every painful barb from arguments past. Take a deep breath and acknowledge that history, Chansky advises: “I know I can’t make up for all the times I have blown this with you, but from the bottom of my heart, I feel really bad about this. I know I need to fix this.” And then—the tough part—work hard to do so.

Walk the walk. Your future actions will either validate the sincerity of your apology or put it into question, says Nick Smith, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, and the author of I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. You don’t have to keep apologizing over and over for the same transgression. If the person doesn’t accept it the first time, let the matter cool for a while, then try once more, says Bloom. Some distance can allow a friend to put your offense in perspective. If you still note a lingering frost, even after she said that all’s well, it’s OK to ask, “Is there more I can do to make it up to you?”