Despite the unrealistic expectations that many of us have for ourselves (and others), virtually all of us make mistakes—sometimes even big ones—with some frequency. In fact, if you are living a bold, creative life in which you are engaging with the world in a way that makes the most of your experiences, it’s hard to imagine how you could get away without making a blunder every once in a while. Mistakes don’t have to define you.
What’s key is handling your mistakes the right way.
When your mistakes affect others, it’s not enough just to accept that mistakes happen and move along. A good apology can go a long way toward not only reversing some of the damage that has been done, but also preventing further deterioration of a relationship. And although most of us have been taught to apologize from our earliest days, many of us lose sight of the point of an effective apology. Here are some key components to keep in mind.
1. Be clear about what you are apologizing for. If you know that your partner is mad at you, but you’re not sure why, you may be tempted to create a blanket apology just to try to move forward (“You’re obviously mad about something; I’m sorry for whatever I did”). This misses the chance to convey your understanding of what you did and how you hurt them—which misses the whole point of the apology. Similarly, “I’m sorry you’re upset” or “I’m sorry if you took it wrong” are not true apologies for your own behavior. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place, but if a true apology for your specific actions is what’s called for, they are not an adequate substitute.
2. Don’t add conditions where conditions don’t belong. With apologies that are coming on the heels of a contentious situation, there is often the urge to protect yourself by limiting your apology within specific parameters or putting conditions on it. You may also be tempted to only give a piecemeal apology, and then see if the other person apologizes next. Be careful of this, and mindful of the risk of adding so many conditions to your apology that it ceases to mean anything anymore. “I’m sorry I said X, but if you hadn’t done Y, then I would have never been so upset” may be true, but it is also prone to escalating the conflict and making it sound like you’re not very sorry at all.
3. Your apology should stand on its own: Don’t apologize as a means to get what you want. An apology can be a useful tool—for connection, for repairing a relationship, and for understanding yourself and others better. It should not, however, be used as a tool to get something that you jeopardized by behaving badly. Apologizes that have this “Let me get it over with” flavor ring hollow and risk doing more harm than good. When you prepare to apologize, ask yourself: Is this apology something I feel is useful in its own right? Or am I viewing it as a means to an end to get what I want? Of course, you may very much hope for some positive effects of the apology. But those should come naturally, not be part of a quid pro quo of your having said sorry.
4. Know the difference between explaining and justifying. Explaining why you did something can sometimes help the other person understand what happened, but there’s a fine line between that and making excuses for your behavior. “I’m sorry I said that; I was angry, and I didn’t handle it well. I let my emotions get the best of me, and that is why I lashed out” is an infinitely more helpful opening to a true, vulnerable conversation than “I’m sorry I said that. You make me so mad sometimes that I just can’t help myself.”
5. Express remorse with empathy. An apology is about more than words—it is also about body language, tone of voice, etc.—yes, I am assuming that you are apologizing by the spoken word, not by text or email. A lot of times, the words may be there, but the empathy and remorse are not. Like an 8-year-old screaming “SOR-ry!” as she storms away on the playground, or a politician offering a canned, superficial press release about mistakes having been made, it becomes clear that there is no true remorse. If you don’t feel actual remorse within an apology, ask yourself why you’re doing it—and whether it’s just a charade that you are apologizing at all.
6. Have a plan for it to not happen again. I have worked with many people whose relationships are caught in a cycle of: hurt each other, apologize, hurt each other, apologize. Rinse and repeat. This is one of the main reasons even a “good” apology can fall on deaf ears. Words don’t mean nearly as much if the actions don’t follow. As the saying goes, “The best apology is changed behavior.” Even better, explain in your apology what you are going to do to try not to make the same mistake anew, to further give the other person some confidence that they won’t have to endure it all over again.
7. Be open to repairing and making further amends. Sometimes, words—even good ones—don’t feel quite sufficient to complete the process of repairing a relationship to the extent that it can begin to move forward. Maybe there is a corrective action you need to make—perhaps involving additional people—or logistical or even financial tolls that need to be paid. Don’t assume that saying sorry is enough when what your friend really could use is further help to mitigate the damage of a situation you had a hand in.
8. Listen. Ultimately, an apology shouldn’t just be about you. It should be about the feelings of the person you are apologizing to. After all, the fact that you are choosing to apologize makes it clear that you feel that you have wronged someone, at least on some level, so their feeling about it is just as important as yours. Don’t get so caught up in your own words that you forget to listen to theirs.