There are many ways to ruin someone's day -- spilling coffee, winning a golf game, accidentally hitting a pet with your car. Even a deliberate, well-intentioned gesture can do it. Helping a friend clean up after dinner is very kind, until you drop and break the antique gravy boat given to her by her grandmother. Taking full responsibility for your behavior -- without attempting to excuse or justify it -- is a humbling experience, often resulting in forgiveness.
Say It Sincerely
Use specific, direct language such as, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." In-person apologies tend to be effective, as they allow for eye contact and minimize the possibility of miscommunication. Consider the setting of your apology as well. A private space during a time when neither of you are rushed nor preoccupied is ideal. Although you may request forgiveness, the primary goal at this time is to convey genuine sorrow.
Acknowledge Your Behavior
Describe your wrongdoing. This assures the recipient of your apology that you genuinely understand your error, and that your apology isn't the shallow result of mere obligation. You can also tell the person whose day you've ruined what specifically you could have done differently, says Maud Purcell, LCSW, CEAP in her article on "successful" mistakes. You might even opt to verbalize what you've learned from your error and how you might act differently in the future.
Observe the Impact of Your Error
Communicate your perception of the damage caused by your behavior. For example, if your negative criticism upset a co-worker to the point that she left the office, let her know you realize how you affected her. You may also describe the remorse and shame your transgression has caused you, according to R. Kevin Grigsby, DSW in his article titled "The Fine Art of Apology: When, Why, and How to Say ‘I’m Sorry.'" In doing so, however, be sure not to let your feelings overshadow the person to whom you are apologizing.
Identify Intention to Rectify Situation
Make amends, if possible. If you break the lawnmower you borrowed from your neighbor, replace it. If you forget to attend your nephew's birthday party, offer to take him to the concert to which he's been looking forward. Grigsby recommends not expecting immediate forgiveness -- or any forgiveness at all. Listen to what the person you've offended has to say -- even if your apology is rejected.