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3 Ways to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Here are 3 ways to say "sorry" when you have hurt someone.

I call my black leather jacket “The Apology Jacket,” and every time I wear it, I think of the story behind its name. 

A woman at work suddenly started being rude and passive-aggressive to me. After a few days of this behavior, I realized she wasn’t just having a bad day but was angry at me. Being a blunt person, I asked her if I had offended her. I said that if I had, it had been accidental, and that I valued our friendship and working relationship. 

She was taken aback but assured me that nothing was wrong. After that conversation, she went back to treating me with her usual cheerfulness. The next day, she brought in a leather jacket that her daughter was getting rid of. She said she thought it was just my style and size, and we had an impromptu fashion show in the lobby. Although she never actually apologized to me or explained her behavior, I valued this small gift as a sign that she was sorry for how she had treated me. 

Apologizing can be difficult, but it is so essential to maintaining healthy relationships. Here are a few tips on how to say you are sorry. 

Verbal apology, face-to-face

The best type of apology — and also the most difficult — is to verbally admit your error to the person you hurt in a face-to-face conversation. By speaking with them in person, you have to have the humility to look that person in the eye and admit your wrongdoing. This can be very challenging because you don’t know how the other person will react. A good apology — and the kind that is most likely to have a positive result — consists of four parts:

  1. Admit what you did wrong;
  2. Say that you are sorry;
  3. Promise to change your behavior in the future;
  4. Ask if there is anything you can do to rectify the situation.

Don’t ruin your apology by blaming the other person. There is nothing worse than hearing, “I’m sorry, but…” Even if the other person had a part to play in the situation, saying you are sorry is not the time to blame the other person. With a genuine apology, you aren’t trying to get them to apologize back to you or to accept a portion of the blame. You are simply admitting your own part in the situation. 

Also, don’t ruin your apology by making excuses for your behavior. It’s okay to explain the circumstances that led to your hurting another person, but be sure you are clear that your decision was wrong. Blaming your bad day or the stress you were under makes it seem like you aren’t taking responsibility for the error.   

If you are nervous about apologizing, that’s perfectly normal! It takes a lot of humility and vulnerability to admit a mistake. It’s helpful to practice your apology ahead of time. Try speaking it out loud to a mirror when you are alone. Although you may feel silly in the moment, practicing out loud will make the real apology go more smoothly. You won’t have to fumble for words in the moment, and you will feel more confident after practicing. 

Written apology

If, for some reason, you can’t meet with the person face-to-face, or if you are too embarrassed or shy to apologize in person, a written apology is the next best thing. One benefit about texting, emailing, or writing a physical letter of apology is that you can brainstorm and edit it before sending it. The same four steps apply for a written apology as a verbal apology.

Gestures of apology

If you can’t bring yourself to actually say the words, “I’m sorry,” you can show that you are sorry for your actions. You could bring the person a small gift, such as a cup of coffee, a favorite snack, or flowers. Try attaching a sticky note to the gift that says “I’m sorry” so the recipient understands your reasons. You might also do an act of service for that person, such as making dinner, doing one of their chores, or running an errand for them. Although these gestures may not be as effective as a full apology, they are a start and can help mend the relationship.

Another gesture of apology is changing the behavior that was causing the problem. For example, if you and your housemate agreed that your chore would be to do the dishes, and a conflict has been brewing because you haven’t followed through, you can show you are sorry simply by doing the dishes. If you’ve had a fight with a friend, you can show you are sorry by speaking to them like you did before the fight. 

Be careful in only changing your behavior as an apology. The other person may not know that you are sorry and could interpret your behavior as sweeping the issue under the rug. You might also want to consider why you can’t verbally apologize: is it an issue that you personally have or are there problems in the relationship? 

Apologizing is a difficult but necessary part of any relationship. We all make mistakes and hurt the ones we love the most. A genuine apology can not only repair a rift, it can actually strengthen the relationship. 

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