Elton John got it right when he said, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Sometimes getting out those two little words can feel downright impossible. Read on to learn how to make sure every “I’m sorry” does the trick, whether the “oops” moment was with a boss, parent, friend, or partner.
Ms. or Mr. Fix-It — The Need-to-Know
According to some research, both people with low self-esteem and people with astronomical self-regard (aka narcissists) have an especially difficult time apologizing — probably because they’re too focused on their own feelings. But apparently it’s worth getting over ourselves and saying we’re sorry: Apologizing has legit emotional benefits, like helping the hurt person get over their anger and creating an empathetic connection between both parties. Studies show successful apologies generally contain three basic ingredients: expressions of empathy, offers of compensation, and acknowledgement of the violation of social norms. Before rushing in to say sorry, take a minute to ponder those three components and how they apply to the pickle at hand.
Sorry, Charlie! — Your Action Plan
Offering an apology sends a message that the wrongdoer accepts responsibility, respects the other person, and wants to move forward. Psychologically speaking, saying sorry is all about leveling the playing field. It causes the apologizer to feel remorse, shame, and humility — similar to the feelings they inflicted on the hurt person. Check out these tips that’ll help any apology, no matter the situation.
Fess up. Mom will notice the broken vase and a friend isn’t likely to forget a missed dinner date. The first step to any successful apology is acknowledging the screw-up.
Do it now. Working up the nerve to say “I’m sorry” isn’t always easy. After a mistake, get the apology out of the way as soon as possible, so it doesn’t hang over your head or cause awkwardness between people.
Be sincere. Really, truly sorry? Then say so, and mean it. A phony apology is easy to spot because most people are bad actors, and regret is a tough feeling to fake.
Consider others’ feelings. Only a heartless demon would feel peachy keen after shrinking a sibling’s favorite sweater in the dryer (right?). Instead of turning an apology into a personal pity party, focus on how the other person feels first. Empathy is key to re-establishing strong relationships.
Don’t get defensive. In this case, the best offense is not a good defense. Try to avoid making excuses, sticking the blame on someone else, or changing the subject. Offering justifications for actions makes it an explanation, not an apology.
Focus on the present. Bringing up previous arguments, times when the other person messed up, or past errors is just unfair. Nobody should be expected to apologize for everything they’ve ever done wrong. Treat the incident as an isolated occurrence, not part of a long series of grievances.
Let it go. Most of the time, mistakes aren’t the end of the world. Don’t beat yourself up, and try to forgive and forget the incident as quickly as possible. On the flip side, be accepting of others’ apologies when they’re in the wrong. Being forgiven and granting forgiveness are good for us: According to some studies, burying the hatchet can actually reduce stress and improve cardiovascular health The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmonson KA, Jones WH. Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. J Behav Med. 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67. The immediate and delayed cardiovascular benefits of forgiving. Larsen BA, Darby RS, Harris CR, Nelkin DK, Milam PE, Christenfeld NJ. Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, USA. Psychosom Med. 2012 Sep;74(7):745-50..
Guidelines for Specific (Sticky) Situations
It’s good to keep the above general guidelines in mind for any apology. But studies also show apologies are most effective when they’re tailored to a specific audience. Just like cover letters, a “one size fits all” approach is not the best way to ask for forgiveness. Here are some suggestions to some of the stickiest of scenarios: making a meaningful apology at work or in matters of love.
How to apologize at work
Even the most scrupulous fact-checker sometimes has an “oops” moment in the office. Whether it’s an untimely deleted email, a skipped meeting, or just a factual error, both coworkers and the boss are going to hold you accountable. According to every career guide in the history of the world, the best way to deal with a workplace error is to own up to it right away. Here's how to get your workplace groove back.
Do: Talk to the boss privately, when he or she is relatively unoccupied.
Don’t: Ask for forgiveness during a company-wide meeting, before an important deadline, or via email.
Do: Take responsibility and be professional.
Don’t: Blame other people on the team, use ignorance as an excuse, or be dishonest about the circumstances.
Do: Frame the apology with positive statements. Love working on the project? Tell your boss about it! For example: “I am enjoying being a part of this team so much. But I made a mistake. Here’s what happened…”
Don’t: Get emotional. Repeating “I feel awful” or “I just can’t believe I did something so stupid!” won’t help the case.
Do: Offer to work extra to make up for the mistake.
Don’t: Harp on and on about how sorry you are. Less is more, and future actions will convey sincerity better than words.
How to apologize to a significant other
Love may mean “never having to say you’re sorry,” but healthy relationships definitely require an apology every once in a while. Asking for forgiveness takes strength, but it’s an important part of remedying the connection between two people. Take note: Ladies and gents have different thresholds for apology-worthy behavior. According to one study, women are quicker to say sorry because they believe a higher volume of incidents warrant an apology; in contrast, men tend to apologize less frequently because they view fewer actions or statements as emotionally “offensive”. Regardless, relationships are all about earning and keeping a partner’s trust, so keep that in mind when apologizing for a mishap.
Do: Take a time-out to cool off after a fight. It’s almost impossible to apologize when either party is all riled up.
Don’t: Get caught up in the heat of the moment and say hurtful things. It’ll just require more apologizing down the road.
Do: Discuss problems like adults in a non-confrontational, non-critical way.
Don’t: Try to score points by bringing up past issues or disagreements.
Do: Recognize that it may take time to rebuild a trusting connection.
Don’t: Rely on gifts or expensive dates to solve relationship problems.
Do: Make an effort to kiss and make up before hitting the hay.
What’s your favorite way to say, “I’m sorry”? Weigh in below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.