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Guidelines for a Good Apology

Offering a good apology to someone may seem easy, but doing it right requires attention and care. Simply saying, “I’m sorry” does not necessarily absolve you from your mistake; truly conveying remorse involves much more. No matter the circumstances, we each need to take personal responsibility for our own actions, regardless of how the past or anyone else may have impacted our choice of behaviors. Communicating a sincere and thoughtful apology tells someone that you recognize the error of your ways and will work to do something different and better the next time.

Here are three simple guidelines for communicating an apology that will convey your remorse and hopes for change in the future. You will find that if you can adopt this approach, conflict resolution will be smoother and you will feel proud of how you managed your end of an issue.

  1. Be specific and concise. When you apologize, be sure to capture exactly what you mean and exactly the issues you want to address and fix. An apology that rambles on or pulls in issues of the past rarely communicates true remorse. Instead, it often is a way of saying that the other person should feel badly for influencing your behaviors such that you had no choice but to act badly (which, of course, is simply not true). You should be able to capture the crux of your apology in about three or four sentences. Any more than that and you may appear to be skirting around the issue rather than facing it directly.
  2. Use “I” language. An apology, after all, is about you and what you want to say you are sorry for. Talk about your experience, what you noticed in the problematic moment or moments, and how you plan to fix it if possible. For instance, you can say, “I was completely out of line when I criticized your driving yesterday. I noticed how much that hurt you, and I never want to make you feel that way. I am truly sorry for that. I think I may need to work on how I express my frustration, and so I’ll start working on that right away.” This last sentence brings us to our third guideline for a good apology.
  3. Follow through with some kind of change. Even a good apology that does not lead to actionable change can fall flat. Be sure that you identify not only what you did wrong but also a plan (even just a few initial thoughts) for how you want to be better in the future. An immediate way you can do this is by asking, “What do you need from me right now to make this better?” Without an indication and commitment to do things different next time, your apology runs the risk of seeming like empty words that will not lead to any change.
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