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4 Steps to Apologizing—Because It’s Not Always as Simple as Saying “I’m Sorry”

You’ve probably heard the saying, “actions speak louder than words,” but it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apologize when you’ve hurt or upset someone. Instead, it suggests you should do your part to acknowledge how your words or actions impacted the other person’s feelings, be open to talking it out, and then walk away with the intention to do better. But oftentimes, that’s easier said than done—because there is more to apologizing than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

Focusing on how you apologize (yes, the tone of your voice matters) and what you say in your apology are essential to ensuring its sincerity. When you say “I’m sorry” like it doesn't matter or you don't specifically take accountability for what you’re sorry for, the person receiving your apology might find it to be insincere.

To make certain your apology is sincere and intentional, keep these four (4) helpful steps in mind.

1. Before apologizing, think about your intention and impact.

Impact vs. intention is talked about quite frequently in psychology. Many times, people get hung up on what they meant to do, rather than what they did.

Let’s say you made plans with your best friend months ago to try out a new restaurant in your neighborhood. As the date of your dinner plans gets closer and closer, your schedule gets busier and busier and you realize that day that you accidentally double-booked yourself. You think that your friend will be the most understanding, so you ask to reschedule. But, she doesn’t take it as well as you predicted.

You might not have meant to offend your best friend by rescheduling at the last minute, but the fact of the matter is that you did. Your last-minute cancelation may have brought up a host of thoughts for her including, “I’m not important to you” or “I can be easily scheduled over.” She may also be thinking about why she got the short end of the stick. You could have canceled on the other person, right?

While there’s honor in not meaning to be hurtful, it doesn’t change the fact that your actions negatively impacted your friend. Before you apologize, consider your impact and your intent. Just because you didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, doesn’t mean that you didn’t.

Putting in this emotional work before apologizing will help you formulate your thoughts so that you can make a meaningful apology.

2. Share your intention and your impact and acknowledge that they were misaligned.

Most times, we don’t mean for our actions or words to be hurtful, but making mistakes is part of being human. With your best friend, it’s clear that your intention and your impact were misaligned.

Now that you have done the emotional work behind the scenes, talk to your friend about your behavior. Start by letting her know that you messed up by double-booking yourself and assuming she would be ok with rescheduling. Your intention was to make room for everyone, but your impact was hurtful to her.

When apologizing, it’s important that we acknowledge our impact, even if it was not our intention.

3. Demonstrate that you understand your impact.

Share details about your impact so that you communicate an understanding of it. For example, you might acknowledge that your actions may have made her feel insignificant and apologize for making her feel that way. Sincere apologies communicate that you understand your impact and are taking accountability for it.

Most people want to gloss over this part. We tend to spend more time discussing the intention, but the impact needs your attention too.

4. Apologize and talk about what you could have done differently.

Another great tip to keep in mind when apologizing to someone is to avoid shifting or deflecting blame. When you put the blame on someone else, shift the weight of your actions, or deflect to another situation, you’re not really ready to apologize—you’re simply making excuses. Just stick to the matter at hand.

Let’s imagine your brother jokes about his hairline a lot with you and your other siblings. Then, you make a very similar joke about his hairline in front of two of his football teammates, causing him to get upset. The joke hurt your brother’s feelings (impact), even if you didn’t mean to (intention) because he makes those jokes around family all of the time.

If you take the time to reflect on the situation you might realize your brother makes those jokes because it’s easier for him to laugh about his insecurities than dwell on them. You might also realize that he ONLY makes those jokes around family because he can be more vulnerable with you. Now that you’ve made the joke in front of his friends, they might think it’s acceptable to make fun of him too.

In your apology, once you’ve talked about your intention, impact, and how they weren’t aligned, it’s time to talk with your brother about what you’ll do differently in the future. Maybe you’ll stay away from jokes about his hair altogether or simply be more cognizant of the audience before making the joke. Whatever you decide to do, make sure he’s onboard and then stick to it.

For the situation with your best friend, here’s an example of what you might say,

“Hi, Keisha. I really need to talk to you. I owe you an apology. My intention was to try to make room for everyone in my schedule [intention]. I realized very late that I double booked myself, and I thought that you would understand if I rescheduled with you. However, I didn’t consider that rescheduling with you so late could create negative feelings for you [impact]. I imagine that you might have thought that you weren’t important to me or felt undervalued [impact details]. That’s certainly not how I want you to feel, and I’m sorry that I rescheduled so late and created those feelings in you.

I really do need to slow down a little bit and be more conscious about how thin I’m spreading myself. Obviously, scheduling mistakes happen, but I’m going to try really hard to never cancel that late on you again [next steps]. I was looking forward to our dinner plans, so I was disappointed when I rescheduled. More importantly, I was looking forward to spending time with you and I am disappointed that I made you feel insignificant to me.”

For the situation with your brother, you might say,

“Hey Terrence, do you have a minute to talk? Two days ago I made a joke about your hairline in front of your friends. The look you gave me indicated that I had crossed the line. Did I read that correctly?

I’m sorry to have embarrassed you. I must have read the situation incorrectly. I thought I was being funny and that it was acceptable to joke about it because you joke about it [intention]. I would never purposely embarrass you in front of your friends [impact]. It sounds like I did that, although unintentionally. I’m sorry that I embarrassed you. I now understand that you prefer those specific jokes to be inside family jokes [impact details]. I can assure you that I will stay away from jokes like that in front of mixed company [next steps] in the future.”

It’s never too late to work on your apologizing skills. If you think you’re great at apologizing, then you might need to reevaluate how sincere your apologies actually are. No two situations are alike; therefore, every apology is going to be unique. Also, it’s important that you’re not apologizing just for the sake of it. If you really want to make matters right with someone you’ve hurt, then start with these steps. You might be surprised by the conversations you have and the real impact of your words and actions.


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