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How to Properly Apologize and Sincerely Ask for Forgiveness

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Despite the best intentions, there will be times in a relationship—whether it’s personal or professional—where one party gets hurt or upset. 

You might’ve been a little careless with your words or insensitive to the other party’s feelings, and in some cases your actions might’ve been taken out of context. 

how to apologize
You’ll feel a sense of relief after talking things through with the person you offended. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Whatever the case may be, you’re eventually going to apologize to someone for something. Since it won’t always be possible to avoid your co-workers, friends, and family when emotions run high, you need to learn how to ask for forgiveness and deal with these uncomfortable situations.

Learning how to apologize properly and sincerely is crucial skill if you want to build long-lasting relationships in and out of work. 

What Is an Apology & What Does It Accomplish?

Have you ever had someone say “sorry” to you, but you didn’t feel like forgiving them because their apology felt forced or insincere? If you have, then you know a good apology is hard to come by.

A good apology has two elements:

  1. It shows the person’s regret over their words or actions.
  2. It acknowledges that said actions, intentional or not, hurt the person you’re apologizing to.

So you can’t just say “I’m sorry” and leave it at that. You've got to show remorse and understanding that your actions hurt someone else. Only when these two elements are present in your apology can you start to rebuild your broken relationship.

Admitting your wrongdoings helps the person you offended to heal, and ensures they don’t wrongly blame themselves for what happened. For your part, taking responsibility strengthens your reputation as a fair and honest person, while giving you more confidence to come clean when something else goes wrong in the future. You’ll also feel a sense of relief after talking things through with the person you offended.

List of Business & Personal Situations That Warrant an Apology

Here's a list of professional and well as personal situations that require a good apology:

1. Work & Business

  • failure to deliver a task on time or according to specifications
  • arriving late to a meeting
  • not answering emails or calls sooner
  • disagreements over pricing and scope of work
  • misunderstandings about project delivery
  • not living up to your promises or claims
  • unexpected costs that you've got to include in your bill
  • unexpected problems that'll delay the project, like a government approval taking too long or a vendor that couldn’t deliver at the last minute

2. Family, Friends, & Personal Relationships

  • forgetting to bring gifts for special occasions
  • arriving late at parties
  • ignoring a friend’s or family member’s messages
  • money-related disagreements, such as not agreeing on how much to spend on vacations, gifts, or groceries
  • saying something mean or inappropriate

Negative Consequences of Not Asking for Forgiveness

Not apologizing or giving a half-hearted apology will damage your relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. It can distance you from close friends you once talked to and hang with regularly. It can strain work relationships to the point you no longer feel comfortable speaking to your team or joining them for lunch breaks.

What’s more, not apologizing may limit your opportunities to work in exciting projects at work, either because you won’t feel comfortable working with the person mad at you or you won’t get invited to join these projects because of the altercation. Your teammates and other people in your office might take sides if it’s a big enough altercation and that may affect the opportunities you receive at work.

Managers may feel justified not apologizing for their mistakes, especially in situations where their employees are partly to blame. Learning how to apologize is part of an effective long-term leadership strategy. No one wants to work with a boss who can’t admit their mistakes. It also creates a toxic environment with no accountability, since subordinates feel justified in passing the blame to others because that’s what their boss does.

How to Apologize Step by Step

You already know how an insincere apology can wreak havoc in your relationships. Now it’s time to learn what constitutes a complete apology so you know how to apologize the next time the situation comes up.

Below is the five-step apology framework of Psychologists Steven Scher and John Darley, which was published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

1. Express Remorse Over Your Actions

Start your apology by saying “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” and follow it up with a brief phrase summarizing your feelings of remorse over what happened. You've got to mean it when you utter these words and be specific about what you’re apologizing for.  

For instance, you can say, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, and I feel embarrassed about losing my temper that way.”

2. Empathize With How the Offended Party Felt

Next, you need to show that you know which of your words and actions hurt the other person and empathize with how said actions made that person feel. The more specific you are in explaining the offending actions and in relating to the other person’s hurt feelings, the more sincere your apology will come across.  

Here’s what you can say based on the previous example:

“It was wrong for me to yell about how we couldn’t agree on what to with the video project. That was wrong because you probably felt embarrassed to be shouted at in front of the whole team.”

This apology will come across as sincere because it specifically mentions the offense (yelling about a video project), and the person apologizing tried to imagine what the offended person felt (embarrassed), while also acknowledging why the event was embarrassing—because their teammates saw it.

Below are other transition phrases you can use for an apology:

  • That was wrong because….
  • I wish I didn’t do it because…
  • (What I did) made you feel (negative emotion) and that was bad…

Read this tutorial to learn more about empathy:

3. Admit Responsibility

“I’m sorry but…” and “I’m sorry if you felt…” doesn't count as a sincere apology because the “but” and “if you felt” tacked after the apology are qualifiers that act as a justification or limiter that suggests you’re not fully responsible for your actions.

You’ll often hear apologies like this from politicians, CEOs, and anyone with a speech writer. But they’re not the only ones guilty of this, since it’s so easy to mix apologies with explanations and justifications in the heat of an argument.

You'll have a chance to explain your point of view, so don’t force it in your apology. You can explain your behavior later on when the person you’ve offended is no longer hurt and is calm enough to hear you out.

But what if the reason someone is mad at you isn’t your fault? For instance, what if your manager set a deadline, but failed to give you the materials to complete the job on time?

Shifting blame may make you feel better, but it won’t be effective and may even escalate the situation. Empathize with their frustrations instead so you can focus on resolving the issue.  

“Acknowledge that your client is feeling frustrated, apologize for any miscommunication, and ask questions to help get to the root of the issue rather than seeking to pass blame,” suggests an article on Maryville University’s blog on handling challenging clients.

So if your client is mad that a project took longer than they initially hoped, you should acknowledge their frustration by saying, “I’m sorry we had a misunderstanding about (their complaint).” Then quickly pivot the conversation by asking questions on how they’d like you to handle situations like this in the future.

Are you having a hard time dealing with your boss? These guides can help you:

4. Offer to Make Amends

You’ve expressed remorse, empathized with the other person’s feelings, and owned up to your mistake. Many people would consider this a complete apology, but in reality it’s still missing two important aspects, both of which are designed to make the offended party feel better.

How can you make the person you hurt feel better? The first thing you can do is make it up to them.

Promise to do something for them in return. You can say, “How can I make it up to you?” or just offer to do something directly related to how you upset them in the first place.

For example, this is what you can say after a disagreement with your colleague,

“I’m sorry I doubted your ability to create a presentation for XYZ product. Next time, I will let you create the presentation on your own so you can show your skills to the whole team.”

Be careful not to overcompensate with your efforts to make amends. Your offer should be proportionate to your offense, so you don’t end up holding a grudge because of it.

5. Promise to Change

An apology is meaningless if you commit the same offense in the future. This is why promising to change is crucial when you want to deeply apologize for serious transgressions.

After promising to make amends, you can end your apology by saying, “From now on, I’m going to (how you plan to change your behavior) so I don’t (your offense).”

Do your best to follow through this promise, otherwise your next apology will feel less sincere to the person you offended regardless of how sorry you feel.

How to Write an Apology Letter

Sometimes, writing an apology letter is necessary when the person you offended doesn’t want to see you, or you want to write a formal apology.

Keep the following points in mind when writing an apology letter:

  • Keep it brief. You don’t have to tell the whole story of what went wrong.
  • Don’t exaggerate.
  • Don’t blame the other person.
  • Keep it sincere and professional.

Formal apology letters come in different variations, but this tutorial will just focus on the main three:

  1. personal apology
  2. third-party apology
  3. mass apology

Now let's look at how to write an apology letter more closely for each type of apology:

1. Personal Apology

A personal apology, like the name suggests, is written when you’ve hurt or offended someone. It’s the written version of the apology framework discussed above. 

persona-apology-letter
Personal apology example from Grammarly

2. Third-Party Apology

A third-party apology is given when you’re apologizing in behalf of someone else, most commonly your employee. People also write third-party apologies on behalf of their children or family members.

Below is an example of a third-party apology where a manager is apologizing on behalf of a sales associate. 

how-to-write-an-apology-letter-for-a-third-party
Third-party apology from WriterExpress.com

3. Mass Apology

You’ll often see mass apologies from politicians, company executives, and celebrities. But anyone who has offended a group of people can write a mass apology.

Below is a sample mass apology in case you need to apologize to customers about an issue in your company:

writing-an-apology-letter-for-mass-apology
Sample mass apology from HubSpot 

Check out this article from Front for even more examples of apology letters.

3 Things to Consider When Apologizing

Apologizing is hard no matter what you’re apologizing for and who you’re apologizing to. Hopefully the tips below will make apologizing easier, as well as the emotions that come with it.

1. Don't Think Of Apologizing as Losing

Apologizing doesn’t make you a bad person; it just means that you value the relationship more than your ego. Apologizing also doesn’t mean that you’re “losing the argument,” although this is a common feeling because why would you apologize if you’re not wrong? 

2. Don't Expect the Person to Forgive Immediately

Asking for forgiveness doesn’t give you the right to demand forgiveness. When you say sorry, you’re giving the other person a chance to consider their feelings, and react to your apology as they see fit.

If the person you offended doesn’t come around, you can either say sorry again and stress your preparedness to make amends, or just accept they can’t forgive you and let it go. If it’s a serious misunderstanding or error, expect that you'll need to apologize multiple times before you can rebuild the trust and relationship that was broken.

3. Pay Attention to Your Words and Body Language When Apologizing

Your body language, facial expressions, and the tone of your voice affects how your apology will be perceived. Make an effort to look sorry and try not to sound sarcastic when you apologize.

Legal Ramifications of Apologizing

Your lawyer or the corporate counsel of your employer may advise you against apologizing, in case your statement is construed as an admission of guilt and exposes the company to litigation as a result.

Consider the following questions when you’re not sure if apologizing on behalf of your organization is necessary:

  • Does the situation you’re apologizing for constitute a legal violation? Can it be perceived as a legal violation?
  • Is the offense related to the company’s main products, services, and company values?
  • How will customers, vendors, and employees react to your statement?
  • Is the company willing to change its practices to avoid further incidents?

Check out this guide from Harvard Business Review for more information about the questions above.

Apologies, in general, are admissible as evidence in court proceedings so the victim can use your apology to support their case. But whether your apology can work against you will depend on the language used. For example, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you” doesn’t necessarily admit that you or your company were at fault. The statement is merely expressing your sympathy for what happened.

The good news is an apology won’t be enough to make a successful case against you, as "the plaintiff will still have to show evidence to support the different elements of their case", says Atty. Joseph Fantini of the Rosen Injury Law Firm.

He adds, 

“An apology doesn’t always have to be negative. Many courts and juries look favorably upon apologies. The fact that you’ve apologized could be used a mitigating factor and limit any consequences you face. Alternatively, refusing to show remorse or apologize could have very serious consequences.” 

You just have to be careful of the language you use. Focus on the hardship or the difficult emotions the other party experienced, instead of on what caused the unpleasantness. Say “I understand…” or “this must be frustrating” to avoid any confusion about you admitting guilt.  

Remember the 5-Step Apology Framework

Keep these steps in mind next time you need to apologize:

  1. express remorse
  2. empathize
  3. admit responsibility
  4. make amends
  5. promise to change

It’s going to be hard at first if you’re not used to this way of apologizing, so just keep practicing until apologizing comes as a second nature to you. 

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