How to Apologize: A Three-Step Approach

We exist in relationship to other humans: family members, friends, colleagues, members of our communities. Inevitably, as part of existing in shared spaces, we will cause harm, even if that wasn’t our intention. Interpersonal rupture is part of the human experience. Ideally, a repair follows a rupture. Repairs make amends and can actually serve to strengthen the relationship in question. Typically, repairs start with an apology.

It can be difficult to apologize. The reality is that most of us aren’t taught how to apologize effectively. Adults force children into shame-filled, under-the-breath “I’m sorry’s” without communicating how to convey empathic understanding or take authentic responsibility for wrong-doings. And many of us don’t grow up with adults who model effective apologies. It’s no surprise we don’t know how to apologize effectively.

But, like many other interpersonal skills, an effective apology can be learned – even later in life. There are three basic steps to an effective apology. While these steps often take practice and finessing, committing them to memory is a good place to start.

1. Say you’re sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” is the start – but not the end – of an effective apology. In other words, it is necessary but not sufficient. When you say you’re sorry, mean it. Convey the sentiment earnestly and authentically. Don’t qualify it. Don’t make excuses or dilute it with rationales or explanations (e.g., “I’m sorry but. . .”).  Avoid anything that sounds like, “I’m sorry you  feel that way.” That’s not an apology and will detract from any remorse you want to convey. Be prepared to take responsibility for your behavior.

2. Next, communicate to the other person an understanding of your impact on them. Place yourself in their metaphorical shoes. Imagine what it must have felt like to be on the other end of your words or actions. Communicate gently and compassionately your understanding of the impact that you had on them, regardless of your intent.

3. The final step is repair. Here you’ll attempt to repair what you did wrong. Sometimes, the repair is verbal. You can make a verbal commitment not to engage in the same behavior. Let the other person know that you’re committed to doing better. And then do better! Words won’t mean much as empty promises. Follow-through actions are critical to reestablishing trust, proving you are someone who means what they say and is mindfully working on reducing harm. Repair can also take the form of compensation or replacement (e.g., “I stole some money from you so I’ll return it, plus interest” or “I damaged your phone so will get you a new one”). In DBT, we also talk about the concept of over-repair, extending your repair further in order to demonstrate your understanding and commitment to doing better. So for instance, if your took attribution for someone else’s work at the office, you might correct the attribution by informing your manager and then offer that colleague a shot at the next project before jumping in in order to communicate your recognition that what you did before was harmful to them.

While apologies might not be easy, they can be made easier when referencing these steps. We hope this guide offers you a framework that can enhance your communication skills and interpersonal effectiveness as a whole.

Published by