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There’s a reason the song is called, Hard to say I’m sorry. Apologizing is something that doesn’t come easy or naturally for most people, including myself. Too often, we get wrapped up in our own lives and our own needs to consider how we might be hurting others, both intentionally and unintentionally. And in many of these instances, a genuine apology is not only necessary but perhaps, the only thing that can repair an otherwise broken relationship.
As someone who has always struggled with making heartfelt apologies to loved ones, I turned to experts for advice on how to be better at saying I’m sorry.
Acknowledge what you did wrong. The first step to making an apology, according to Dr. Elizabeth M. Minei, is to explain the error. The person who made the mistake should acknowledge and explain their understanding of why they hurt the other person. “The reason for this step is that an offer of ‘sorry!’ without communicating that you’ve understood why the words or actions were hurtful results in less of an impact to the hearer,” she says.
Be sincere. This seems like a no brainer, but we live in a culture where superficial and qualified non-apologies are the norm for politicians and public figures. Oftentimes, they will sound something like, I’m sorry if I hurt you or I’m sorry but… A sincere and humble apology, according to New York City-based therapist Kimberly Hershenson, doesn’t attempt to justify your wrongdoing. Instead, it “shows that you recognize your hurtful actions, accept responsibility and are willing to change.”
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Ask for forgiveness. When you ask for forgiveness, you give the other person a chance to react and respond. Give them time. Even if they never come around, this is an important gesture that puts the ball back in their court, says Keba Richmond-Green, a mental health and relationship expert. “It gives them the opportunity to either take it or leave it.”
Don’t think of an apology as winning or losing. In her practice, marriage and family therapist Carolyn Cole has seen too many couples say they just want to win or be right in a fight. But she says, saying the words ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t the same as saying ‘you’re right in this situation.’ Instead, an apology simply means that “you value the relationship more than your ego.”
Don’t blame them. This is the most challenging hurdle to overcome in my own apologies, as I am usually all too eager to point out how they provoked me into acting a certain way. According to relationship therapist Rhonda Milrad, saying, “‘I wouldn’t have, if you didn’t do this first’ sends a message that you are not taking responsibility for your actions.” In other words, blaming them pretty much invalidates your apology.
Be ready to apologize multiple times. Sometimes, one sorry just isn’t enough. To show true contrition, relationship therapist Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin recommends repeatedly asking for forgiveness and offering reassurance to loved ones, especially for serious errors. “To apologize and expect life to return to normal because you said sorry is unrealistic,” he says. “This contrition will help reduce the anger that the other may be feeling and will help rebuild the trust.”
Tell them how you will change. Most of us can agree that an apology is meaningless if nothing changes afterward. This is why it is so important to follow up with “how you plan to change your behavior to avoid this problem in the future,” says Dr. Jesse Matthews. Most importantly, you must follow through with the change. It is the only way that the other person will know that you are truly sorry.
…But what if they don’t forgive you?
This is the hardest part about apologies. Sometimes, no matter what you do or say, it won’t be enough. In her experience, Dr. Minei, has found, “a well-executed proper apology is 12X more likely to generate forgiveness from the recipient of the apology.” Still, if your apology is not accepted, she advises that you should assess the reason why. If the recipient says he needs more time, than you might respond with, “I understand and I am willing to give you more time. I’d like to call you next week — does that sound alright to you?”
Sometimes, people may hesitate in granting forgiveness, because the offered restoration isn’t enough, says Minei. In that case, you might respond with “I’d like to know what I can do to make this right. Can we brainstorm together?” This shows that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make amends.
And finally, there may be times when people flat out refuse your apology, no matter how well intentioned or heartfelt it is. Minei suggests in these instances you can only respond by stating your desire to maintain your relationship. You could say, “I understand that you want nothing to do with me, and I regret that my mistake has led us to this place. I do not want to end our friendship and can only say that if you change your mind, I would be willing to continue our relationship.” But afterwards, you should leave them alone.
Apologies will never be easy, but hopefully these tips will make them better.