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Take Four Steps to Say You’re Really Sorry When You’ve Screwed Up

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Because we all screw up sometimes.



June 11, 2023


The other day I said something unnecessary and unhelpful to a friend.

Have you ever done something you regretted and then attempted an apology that bombed? Or have you received an apology that made you wish they hadn’t bothered?

I’ve been on both sides. Either way, if you were paying attention, you received a gift — you saw how not to apologize.

We all blow it at times. We’ve got some unhealed wounds just waiting to be poked. We have a terrible day, and our fuse is short, or we’re self-absorbed and not paying attention to what’s called for.

Whatever the reason, most of us know when we’ve been less than our best self, and an apology is in order.

Sounds easy. But it can be challenging when your nervous system’s on high alert — that’s not the best time to apologize.

Don’t Apologize too Soon

I worked with a recently sober client who felt terrible about how she had hurt people in the past.

She was eager to make amends, went individually to several family members, and poured her heart into a sincere apology for how she had hurt or neglected them.

But they weren’t ready. They were happy for her newfound sobriety but hadn’t had enough time for the sore spots to heal to welcome her apology.

When my client told me the story, she was struggling with how angry she was at them for not forgiving her when she’d been working so hard to be, in her own words, a better person.

We talked about timing. Just because she was ready to make amends didn’t mean anyone else was in the same place. She began to understand that making amends and expecting forgiveness on her schedule was not the best way to move forward.

She decided to wait to make amends until she was ready to accept whatever response she got. Of course, she wanted forgiveness but realized it was not something she could demand or even expect.

If the wrong you’ve done has seriously harmed someone, give yourself a grace period until you can receive whatever response comes your way.

If the wrong is less catastrophic, give yourself time to calm down enough to recognize and be clear about your part in the problem interaction — where you went wrong — before you try to mend a fence.

Don’t Be Insincere

The following approaches to an apology won’t be helpful — don’t do them.

Blame the other person for their reaction

“I’m sorry ‘if’ you felt (unheard, misunderstood, or upset).

Adding “I’m sorry ‘if’ you felt upset” suggests the other person is wrong for their reaction. It implies they’re too reactive, sensitive, or too (fill in the blank), so it’s their problem, not yours.

Offer excuses for your bad behavior

“I’m sorry I (yelled at you, didn’t listen, ignored you), ‘but’… when you said or did (whatever), I was simply reacting to that or defending myself.”

“I’m sorry, ‘but’…(insert anything), is meaningless.

Apologize so the other person will apologize back

“I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings; I’m sure you feel the same,” or “I’m sorry I spoke harshly — we both lost our cool.”

Your apology will sound shallow if you’re trying to get someone else to say they’re sorry. Then, if they don’t apologize, you’ll feel resentful.

Say I’m sorry just to keep the peace

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s my fault for being too sensitive.”

Apologizing to calm someone else down even when you’re sure you’ve done nothing wrong can be a slippery slope, ending with you feeling resentful or, worse, powerless.

However, sometimes we aren’t aware that we’ve been hurtful until the person lets us know. At those times, it can make sense to apologize simply because the relationship is more important than being right,

Once You’re Ready, Here’s How to Offer a Sincere Apology

In Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, authors Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy suggest six (and a half) stages in a successful apology.

I’ve boiled it down to four steps — they’re easier to remember.

The following example is my apology to a dear friend for saying something unnecessary when I listened with my head, not my heart.

  1. Say I’m sorry

“Susan, I’ve been thinking about my reaction to something you shared the other day. I’m uncomfortable with what I said, and I want you to know I’m sorry.”

  1. Be specific

“When you shared your feelings about the grief someone close to you was experiencing, my response was off base. After the fact, I realized you were looking for support, not my unsolicited opinions. Regretfully, I wasn’t listening well, and I want you to know I feel bad because I care about you and am truly interested in your feelings.”

  1. State what you will do differently in the future

“I’m setting an intention that when you share something with me, I’ll pause and let it sink in before I reactively blurt the first thought that comes into my head. What I said to you wasn’t necessary or helpful.”

As an aside, an excellent reminder for me has been the THINK acronym — asking myself the questions, is it:

  • True?
  • Helpful?
  • Inspiring?
  • Necessary?
  • Kind?

My Achilles heel is the fourth one — is it necessary? I can probably eliminate fifty percent of my comments without losing anything.

  1. Ask for feedback, and then listen

“Susan, are you comfortable with what I’ve said? Is there anything else you want or need that will make it clear how serious I am about not making the same mistake again?”

Remember, an apology is about acknowledging someone else’s experience or emotion. It’s not the time to justify yours.

To Sum Things Up

Don’t apologize too soon. Give yourself a chance to calm down and clarify your apology. Wait until you’re prepared to accept an unexpected response.

Ensure your intentions are ‘clean,’ i.e., you’re not blaming, offering excuses, or apologizing to get an apology from the other person.

Once you’re ready, start with “I’m sorry,” then be specific about what you’re apologizing for, clarify what you’ll do to ensure it doesn’t happen again, ask for feedback, and then listen.

Is there anyone you can think of who you love, miss, and wish to mend fences with?

Even if they don’t reciprocate the way you want, the moment you say, “I’m sorry for causing you pain,” you can walk away feeling clean. And that clean feeling can be worth more than a million apologies from someone els

Please give it a try and let me know how it goes,

I’m always thrilled to hear from you, and I appreciate every time my articles are forwarded to someone new.

Much love,