8 Elements of an Effective Apology

Ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve wronged someone, then made a kind apology, and that person had the nerve to hold a grudge against you?

The nerve! Am I right?

As a Canadian, I have a lot of practise when it comes to apologising. We apologise for everything, eh? Even when someone bumps into us walking down the street, or broadsides our car on the way to work!

a good apology takes skill and patience

Here’s the 8 elements needed to making an effective apology the next time you screw things up miserably:

1. Timing matters.

“I’m too angry right now!”

A knee-jerk reaction for most of us is to apologise the minute we realise we’ve wronged someone. The reality, and science behind an effective apology, tells us that most times we’re far better off waiting until the other person has calmed down to the point they can actually listen. Obviously, waiting too long can make the offended party seethe with even more anger at your disregard, but it doesn’t have to be when they’re storming out of the room trying to escape from you!

2. Sincerity or it didn’t happen.

If you don’t feel it, don’t bother saying it.

Sincerely regretting how you’ve wronged someone, or a group of people can also take time to cultivate. Don’t say sorry if you really don’t feel it in your gut (there are even times when you definitely shouldn’t say your sorry). Human beings all have their own in-built lie detectors when it comes to how sincere someone is being toward us. It’s far better to wait until you’ve thought through what you did — then come back later, tell the other person how you thought things through and empathise with how your actions or behavior impacted them.

3. Throw your defense mechanisms out the window.

“I was wrong, and this is how I’m going to fix it…”

It’s hard to be meaningful in an apology if you’re busy making excuses. Simply accept in your own head why you did what you did and propose to the other person how you’re going to make it right. Say you’re late to work the third time this month — no excuses: “Hey Ted, there’s no excuse for being late so many times this month. I’m going out right after work and buying one of those alarm clocks that jump off the desk and smash around all over the room when it’s time to get up.”

4. Apologies are meant to heal them, not you!

“I don’t care that it’s eating you up inside and you can’t sleep at night — you really hurt my feelings!”

Expressing all the many ways the incident that led to the apology is weighing on your mind just makes you look selfish. Express these selfish thoughts to that person at a later date, if you wish — after you’ve smoothed the waters and all’s forgotten. For now, express how sorry you are for how you’ve wronged THEM.

5. Generalities in the details make things more heated.

“That’s all you have to say for yourself? You don’t even get it!”

If you just don’t get how you’ve wronged the other person, you’re better off asking, rather than blurting out generalities. Nobody wants to be told how they feel after you’ve wronged them (listening to this, fellas?) Say something like “I get that you’re mad. I’m a moron. Please tell me what I did.” This can be met with angry resentment, especially if the timing isn’t right, but it’s better than looking like a pompous idiot who thinks they know how a person’s heart beats.

Knowing how to say sorry is an artform
Image Credit: Dawn V/Flickr

6. Prepare for the long game. 

“Now that I’ve had time to think, I don’t accept your apology.”

An apology doesn’t fix everything right on the spot. The offended party may need time to go and reflect on your confession, and all the things you said in response to whatever they shared with you. They may leave the conversation satisfied, then immediately or much later realise you said something that made them even more angry over the initial thing you did to make them mad. A follow up conversation, including another apology, may be necessary in the case of serious issues.

7. Don’t make promises you can’t 100% keep.

“You told me that after the last time that this would never happen again!”

If you find yourself constantly apologising to people for wronging someone in the exact same way over and over, either they’re unbalanced or you aren’t very good at keeping your word. Worse, they might forgive you once — even twice if you’re lucky — but three strikes and you’re a gosh-danged liar if you keep doing the same thing over and over. So, don’t ever say “I’ll never do (or let this happen) again,” unless you’re 100% sure. Better to say, “I’m going to do my level best to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” At least you’re not a liar if things go south!

8. Ask for forgiveness and express gratitude when it’s granted.

“Thank you so much for understanding. I was definitely a jerk. Please, do you forgive me?”

It might seem cheesy, but asking for forgiveness is the 8th step in Alcoholic’s Anonymous for a reason. See, you can’t forgive yourself until you’ve been forgiven. Deep in our brains, we all know this and if you just say you’re sorry and empathise, it can still come across as disingenuous after the other party’s had time to think the conversation through. After they accept your apology, either with words, a head bob, a hug or a smooch (from your significant other, of course!) ask for forgiveness to put the ordeal behind both of you.

Never forget that the issue at hand is your fault!

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be apologising, would you? Keep your head on straight and your emotions in check.

Realise that it’s you that ultimately has to make things right. If they’re not ready, you need to exercise patience.

And, when the time comes that someone feels genuinely bad for wronging you in some way, don’t let yourself forget just how difficult these kinds of situations can be to sort out!

Main Image Credit: Matus/Flickr