Making a Better Apology

Saying “I’m sorry” can be trickier than it may seem. No matter how good our relationships are, having conflict and sometimes hurting people is unavoidable. Making an apology is essential for maintaining the quality of relationships. Unfortunately, we have all experienced bad apologies – given them, received them, or even witnessed them in situations that don’t directly involve us. These can feel forced or insincere, can feel incomplete, and sometimes can even exacerbate anger or resentment. Maybe the best example of a bad apology is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Even though the words are there, the crucial factor of acknowledging and accepting responsibility for doing something hurtful is missing. Recognizing the importance, and the complexity, of effective apologies, researchers have been able to identify several components. According to Beth Polin, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University, there are six pieces to an effective apology. In order to list and describe them, let me share a recent example.

I have a young adult daughter. She lives very close by (actually, she lives in the basement apartment of our house), but we have very different schedules and find it difficult to see each other. In an attempt to remain connected, we make plans to do something together, usually once or twice a month. Recently, we made plans for a night in, to get takeout and watch a movie. When the evening came, I was feeling tired and cancelled. Then when I wanted to reschedule, she was clearly upset. It turned out that she had turned down other plans to spend time with me, and she felt that I was not making her a priority or valuing her time. Clearly, I owed her an apology, and I made an effort to apologize effectively, utilizing each of the components.
An expression of regret. “I want to apologize for blowing off our movie night. I know that time together is important, and I know you made it a priority.”

An explanation – not trying to justify or rationalize, simply stating the reasons for the offense. “I had a long and difficult week at work, and I was feeling pretty wiped out.”
An acknowledgement of responsibility. “I didn’t show respect for your time, and even though I didn’t mean to I made it seem like I didn’t really want to do something with you.”
A promise not to repeat the offense. “I really want you to feel how important you are to me. When we make plans together, I won’t just cancel at the last minute.”
An offer of repair. “I want to make this up to you. Do you have another evening free? Or can I take you out for breakfast or lunch this weekend? Let me know when you’re available and I will try to arrange my schedule around it.”
A request for forgiveness. “Again, I’m really sorry. I hope you forgive me.”

In the end, my daughter and I were able to patch things up pretty easily, but if I had given her an incomplete or insincere apology – something like, “I’m sorry you got mad that I missed our movie night, but you know I’ve been really busy and I just got tired” – I could very well have caused much greater damage. While expressing regret, acknowledging responsibility, and making amends can be difficult, doing so is far simpler than having to deal with a failed relationship.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist