In the moment, apologies can be highly emotional, and your mind can go blank. “To avoid this happening, I advise my clients to write down the major points they want to get across,” says McCance. “These are not points you want to prove, or all of the reasons you did what you did, but rather they’re specific behaviors you regret, or reminders like, ‘Make sure to say I love you,’ if you’re apologizing to a partner.”
If you know the person you’ve hurt personally, spend time thinking about their history, relationships, and past traumas, says McCance. While you will never fully understand another person’s lived experience, by contextualizing this offense within their personal triggers, you may better empathize with their reaction.
(Note: If this person has not shared their past traumas with you, your apology is not the appropriate time to ask about them. Doing so could be seen as an attempt to demean or minimize their present pain.)
Manage your expectations
According to Joanne Lescher, a certified Non-Violent Communication facilitator, the biggest apology misconception is that people think saying “I’m sorry” should immediately result in the other person accepting their remorse. But apologies aren’t about you; they’re about whoever you hurt.
“We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we don’t mean it all the time. It’s a habit we pick up as children, when we’re forced to apologize even if we don’t understand why,” says Lescher. “What we need to learn is how to own why we are apologizing.”
Part of owning the “why” is realizing that you’ve negatively affected someone, and it’s up to them, not you, to decide whether to forgive you. “I always tell clients to manage their expectations before apologizing,” says McCance. “If someone is hurt, a story about why you’re sorry doesn’t erase what you initially said or did. You’ve got to give them time, because the trail of all those painful emotions is not always easy to move on from.” Managing expectations also means accepting that, as a consequence of your actions, forgiveness may be impossible.
What to say (and avoid saying)
When it comes to the literal words of an apology, there are a number of cardinal sins—and musts.
“First and foremost, it’s really important to avoid explaining the reasons behind what you did,” says McCance. “There are always reasons behind behavior, but laying out these reasons can come across as excuses. If you do this, the other person will feel like you aren’t sincere and don’t get it.”
Defensiveness will immediately shut down an apology conversation, and is to be avoided at all costs. Recognize that defensiveness is most likely to flare up when you do not fully understand, or agree with the person you’re apologizing to. In these instances, focus on listening.
“Say things like, ‘Tell me more about that,’ or ‘Can you explain that feeling further,’ instead of arguing or defending yourself,” says Lescher. “To really understand the impact of your behavior, you have to be genuinely curious about what the other person is feeling. We all tend to want to justify our behavior, but that’s never what someone wants to hear when they’re hurt.”
And in moments when you feel someone is overreacting mid-apology, do not name that overreaction outright. Instead, try lines like, “I feel like you are giving me a level-10 response, and I’m a little confused, but I really want to understand how you feel,” says McCance.
Another common error is literally forgetting to say the words “I am sorry.” But while experts agree that these words are essential to any apology, what comes after them is far more important.
SIFYs (Sorry If You Feel Angry) are a quintessential post-sorry screwup: “Even if they’re well intentioned, saying phrases like ‘I’m sorry if you feel like I was mean,’ or ‘I’m sorry if you feel angry,’ will not work because they minimize the other person’s feelings and experience,” says McCance.
Instead, follow “I’m sorry” with genuine expressions of remorse, and phrases like “I can imagine you’re so disappointed.” Most important, make sure “I’m sorry” includes clear and specific examples of what, exactly, you are sorry for.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ alone is fairly empty; it’s just a hollow statement that doesn’t do much for the giver or the receiver of the apology,” says Lescher. “If you are really sorry, maybe it’s because you regret your actions or words, because you’ve seen how whatever you said or did impacted the other person. So you should continue your apology by saying something like, ‘I regret that I said X because I see how deeply it impacted you, and how hurt you are by my words, and that wasn’t my intention.” Apologizing with your regret is deeper and richer than “I’m sorry,” because it shows that you see how much you hurt the other person, she says.
Saying “that wasn’t my intention” can sometimes be interpreted as an excuse, so try following this statement with an explanation of what you would say or do differently if you could go back in time. Also, crucially, what you would like to do differently going forward.
“If the apology doesn’t have that following piece of what I want to do differently, then the person may not ever change their behavior,” Lescher explains. “Until you take responsibility for your behavior, and create a plan of action on how to improve, most of us fall back into old patterns.” Of course, saying you’ll act differently is no guarantee, and the person you’re apologizing to doesn’t need to believe you, but it makes a behavioral shift much more likely.
Non-verbal delivery tips
In our ever-digital world, it’s far too easy to apologize via text (or email, Slack, Twitter, and Snapchat, if you’re truly brainwashed). I’m extremely guilty of text-message apologies, and the excuse is simple: I’m scared. But according to Lescher and McCance, apologies should always be delivered face-to-face. (If IRL is impossible, your best bet is a video call.)
So much of human communication is transmitted via facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language—all of which are invisible via text, making digital apologies highly susceptible to misinterpretation. (If text is your only option, remember that ending any exchange with “ok.” or any “k” variation is cruel and unusual punishment.)
When apologizing in person, be sure to keep your voice low and soft, and never interrupt or speak over the other person, says McCance. Take deep breaths throughout the conversation—if you’re calm and grounded and in your body, you’re more likely to connect with the other person and catch yourself before you get defensive. Ask lots of open-ended questions, and when you sense the conversation is ending, ask if there’s anything else the receiver needs to tell you.
As for body language, make lots of direct eye-contact, and nod to indicate that you’re actively listening, says McCance. Make sure your shoulders are parallel to their shoulders, and that your physical stance mirrors theirs: If the person you’re apologizing to is curled in a ball on the floor, sit next to them; if they’re sitting, sit; do not stand if they are sitting or laying down.
What to do after the apology
The most important thing to do after apologizing is to accept whatever the person receiving your apology tells you. “If they do not accept your apology, don’t fight it, and let them feel their pain, hurt, or anger,” says Lescher. “Leave the door open if there’s anything else they would like to share in the future, let them know that you are here for them if they need you, or if there’s more to do or say.”
Regardless of whether the apology goes well or not, be sure to express how much you care about this person’s wellness, and note that going forward you want to bring them up, not pull them down.
If you are forgiven, and feel the conflict is resolved, it’s best not to bring it up repeatedly, says McCance. Instead, if the person is a friend or partner, suggest doing something fun together so to form new, happier memories.
Complicated as apologies may seem, they boil down to two concepts: responsibility and acceptance. Dig deep to understand the impact of your behavior. Then, regardless of your feelings about this behavior, take responsibility for its consequences. Accept that you, like every human being, are not perfect, and that the best you can do is listen to those you’ve hurt, validate their truth, and work to be better going forward.