Updated: 22 Aug 2017
Ways to offer a genuine and potentially effective apology
- with an example apology letter
By Elly Prior
Knowing how to say sorry and apologise gracefully...
... saves relationships
... builds trust
... preserves your energy by stopping needless worrying
... maintains and improves your self-esteem
(By the way, I spell apologise with an 's' - it's a British thing, but of course if you write in American English, you'll want to spell it with a 'z'.)
And, before we move on, you may want to find a solution for the underlying problem that led you to having to apologise...
Dealing with any guilt
When you're already dealing with guilt because of the damage your words or actions have caused, what have you got to lose by making a meaningful apology?
If you know you've been wrong, have made a mistake or you've let people down, it's best to forget about 'saving face' .
Other people are likely to know or sense that things don't stack up, even if you're trying your hardest to deny your wrong-doing. You may get away with it for now, but there's always the chance that the skeleton will fall out of the cupboard at some point in the future.
However, you wouldn't have landed on this page if you hadn't acknowledged on some level that you've made a mistake. That is - unless you're trying to find a sneaky way out of a 'situation'. If so, don't even bother to read on... this page is only for the genuinely sorry.
However rough you're feeling right now and however confused you are about where to start, don't worry! Saying sorry is a skill that can be learned. It's a noble thing to do, and an essential part of general communication skills.
Most importantly, knowing how to genuinely apologise in a meaningful way helps to build and maintain healthy relationships. Saying sorry deepens a relationship in several ways:
6 Ways a meaningful and sincere apology can benefit your relationship
- It builds trust
- It prevents a potential deterioration of relationship problems
- It can kick start a renewal of your relationship
- It removes awkwardness between the parties - you know... that horrible feeling of not knowing what to say to the other person, resulting in you doing all you can to avoid them
- In an indirect way it opens up a way for your partner to admit to their mistakes
- It allows your partner to love you with all your flaws and imperfections
And the benefits don't stop there!
What is the potential outcome of saying sorry?
Well... there may of course be negative consequences to your admission of guilt. You may end up being punished, having to deal with the fall-out in your relationship, and having to 'pay' for it in some way emotionally, mentally, physically (see Signs of an Abusive Relationship) or financially.
I suspect you'll have considered at least some of that already.
Having a tough time dealing with guilty feelings (above and beyond the expected)? If they stop you from taking action, the secret to dealing with it is to switch the guilt off with self-hypnosis (after you have taken learning from them though!). Have a look at my page on Frequently Asked Questions about Hypnosis.
But I mentioned earlier other benefits of a genuine apology, and these include:
- Better relationships - with your colleagues, friends or family, or with your partner (unless you're admitting to infidelity - see links further down for other articles)
- A clear conscience, which potentially reduces anxiety, improves sleep and restores your self-respect
- Improved 'spare capacity' to deal with other dramas, projects, people or opportunities. Worrying about being found out to have done something wrong, and guilt about having caused hurt, takes energy that you can put to much better use
Are you hiding your true feelings?
What might you need to say sorry for?
Here are some examples of what may have caused distress to others, to a greater or lesser extent.
You may want to offer an apology for any of the following (and there are no judgements about seriousness here):
- There was a misunderstanding because you were ignorant of the facts
- You made assumptions and you omitted to check them out
- You deliberately hurt your partner or someone else to 'get your own back'
- You've been plain selfish
- You've broken a promise
- You acted on hearsay. Gossip hurts other people and undermines your self-respect
- You've let your partner or other people down - at home, at work or at play
It could of course have been a combination of any these, or something different entirely!
Another reason you may have disappointed or hurt others is because you possibly just haven't 'felt yourself' lately. Don't even think of using this as an excuse, but it can be an explanation for your insensitivity to the feelings of others.
When you're feeling exhausted, depressed and stressed, your capacity to consider others may be diminished. This doesn't absolve you of responsibility or remove the need to apologise though.
Feeling overwhelmed? Need someone to talk to?
I've got it covered! However much I'd like to help you myself, I can't make that happen. But, you can talk to one of our online, licensed therapists.
3 Step plan for a successful apology
You may be feeling pretty 'sheepish' right now, assuming that you're here for genuine reasons. If not - a gentle word of warning: disingenuousness will 'leak out' in your general demeanour, including your voice, choice of words and body language.
Someone else will pick it up either consciously or unconsciously. The penny will drop for them at some point - if not immediately.
First of all, it's always best to say sorry as soon as possible, but only after some careful thought. Once you've really thought the situation through, here's a plan to help you with your perfect apology:
- Try to really understand what your mistake has meant to your partner or any other wronged party. You may need to do a bit of 'research' - only by imagining yourself in their shoes will you get a sense of what it's done to them.
- Decide how you're going to apologise (more details on the next page): by telephone? Email? Text? Letter? In person?
- Decide when you're going to do it.
How to apologise: written apology or personal appearance?
There is a place for both, so let's look at this in more detail together. I really want you to be as successful as you can be in improving your relationship, reputation and self-respect.
"Sorry" by text
Forget it! The only time you can use a text message is if you need to say sorry in advance for arriving later than expected!
Saying sorry by email
Consider apologising in this way only if you don't know the other party personally. For example if there's been a minor misunderstanding with a supplier.
Offering an apology by card or letter
Yep - apology letters are potentially a reasonable way to say sorry. (I'll sometimes advise a client to write a letter to their partner, especially if they're unlikely to be given a chance to say their piece face-to-face.)
It is even more attentive if you accompany your letter with a bouquet of flowers or other thoughtful gift.
Writing a letter is also a good idea if, for example, you want to make a public apology to a group of people.
Let your words incubate for a couple of days, reread your letter or card several times, and imagine the receiver in different moods: angry, sad or happy. Before you send or give a letter, let a trusted person read it first to eliminate any blind spots and prevent unintended consequences as much as possible.
Below is a sample letter of apology. Do be careful to only use my sample words as a guide, and adapt the sentences to your needs and your own style. It's essential that your letter sounds genuine, and not like something you've copied! Try to strike a balance between showing that you've worked really hard to get it right and not overusing words you're unfamiliar with.
To help you find the right words for how you feel, have a look at my list of emotions and feelings.
Sample apology letter
I am writing to express my sincere / sincerest apologies for my insensitive actions / behaviour / words / disregard / blunder / my failure to...
I very quickly realised / On reflection I realise that I was very wrong to assume / lash out / ignore / find fault with / accuse / blame...
I realise that my behaviour / oversight / omission was totally inappropriate, inexcusable and disrespectful.
I can only imagine the hurt / distress / embarrassment / awkwardness I have caused to... and the damage that it has done to our relationship / your reputation / your chances of... / your trust in me (be careful not to talk about yourself here!).
I hope that you will allow me the opportunity to express my apology again in person.
I would appreciate the opportunity to put right my wrongs and prove to you that I have learned from my mistake.
I will of course accept that I may have caused irreparable damage and may no longer be...
I appreciate I may no longer... / I understand if you need some more time before...
Expressing your remorse by telephone
This is only suitable if you live too far away to offer an apology in person within a reasonable time of the mistake.
Yes, it takes courage to apologise. But, once you've done it, you'll be able to sleep easier at night.
The best way to start making amends
The best kind of apology is one that you deliver in person.
10 tips for offering a perfect apology
- Pluck up the courage by reminding yourself of how you've 'survived' other difficult conversations (whether or not they were a success!) and how you've dealt with difficult situations in the past
- Offer your apology in person - ideally. Your words will mean the most to the other person - but a token gesture (like a bunch of flowers or tickets to a concert etc.) will add to the impact. A published letter of apology may possibly help with this too (see further down)
- Make sure your timing is right
- Spend some time talking about what your understanding is of the impact of your wrongdoing on your partner, colleague, friend or whoever else it might be (remember your research?)
- Take full responsibility for your role in the situation
- Apologise unreservedly by saying something like: "I now know / I can see that my actions caused [what you have observed or heard], I am truly sorry for that. I know that by saying / doing that [specify your action or words], I have damaged [your reputation, our relationship, your trust, etc].
- Ask what you can do to help your partner or other party repair whatever was damaged
- Make it up with flowers, tickets to a gig, concert or experience, chocolates, a bottle of wine and a card... but only as an addition - your words and actions are by far the most important factors
- Truly make amends by taking whatever action is necessary for you to address the underlying problem that led to your mistake. This is THE most important point, as 'just' saying sorry - without some real soul searching - may lead to you falling into the same trap again. So, you may have to address that addiction, depression, nervous breakdown or repeated infidelity.
- Having said how sorry you are from the heart you now need to accept the other person's reaction without judgement. He or she:
- may need time to process everything that's happened
- may not be able to accept your apology
- may only be able to meet you half-way
- may take the opportunity to express their anger and hurt
Watch the video to learn how you could start that difficult conversation...
How to express your regret without creating an argument
Here are the things you should avoid at all costs when you're apologising in person!
- Do not have any expectations of the wronged person. Accept that they do not need to do or say anything in return for your apology. Following on from that ...
- Do not burden the other person with your guilt - only you are responsible for overcoming your guilty feelings
- Do not start blaming the other party - apologising unreservedly means that you take full responsibility for your part of the problem. It may well be that others were also to blame, but now is not the time to point the finger.
Is it really your fault?
I'm only addressing this very briefly, because the focus of this article is really on how to say sorry. However, some people feel guilty all too quickly - they almost apologise for being alive. This is invariably linked to poor self-esteem.
If your self-esteem is in your boots and you have a tendency to apologise for just about anything, then please read my articles about building your self-esteem. I would so love you to feel better about yourself.
Also, if you have a controlling partner, you're possibly at risk of at least emotional abuse. This isn't necessarily the case, of course, but if this rings a bell with you then it's worth considering.
Your partner may be manipulating situations so that you end up saying sorry for something that wasn't your fault or didn't require an apology. Under these circumstances you may start to suffer from excessive guilt. No wonder!
However, if an apology is in order and you really do need to say "sorry, I was wrong".
There can be consequences you haven't taken into account
When you've majorly 'screwed up', I suspect you're in an emotional turmoil.
Do consider, therefore, connecting with a professional - online - licensed therapist. He or she can support and guide you. They can help you figure out not only how best to apologise, but also how to limit the damage. For further information see my page: Online Relationship Advice.
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