When you've done something wrong and regret your actions, an apology can help make amends. But your apology will likely be rejected if it isn't sincere. Prepare for the apology, keeping in mind what you know about the person you offended. Ensure you genuinely feel remorse and you'll increase the likelihood of being forgiven. Some relationships heal slowly, so be prepared if you don’t get complete forgiveness immediately.
You must feel genuine remorse before you can express it, so know why you're apologizing. Your actions hurt someone, but also might have violated social expectations. For example, telling a lie might cause harm to a specific person but it also violates social norms, so plan to acknowledge that as well. And give some thought to where and when you'll apologize. It's usually a good idea to apologize in private, but if you offended someone publicly you might consider apologizing in public.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
If you can empathize with the person you hurt you'll be able to show you understand why you hurt them. Personalize your apology and show you know the person you offended or hurt. Your apology should be tailored to the individual needs of the victim, suggests consultant and coach Sherri Fisher M.Ed., in the article "Facilitating Forgiveness: Effective Apologies for Positive Relationships" on the website Positive Psychology News Daily. For example, if you caused a friend embarrassment with a thoughtless comment, you might acknowledge how insensitive you were by saying, "I should have remembered how much it hurts when people talk about your brother."
Choose Your Words Carefully
Don't try to avoid the important words, "I'm sorry." Focus on making "I" statements that show you know you're responsibility for past mistakes and accept the blame. Keep the focus on what you did and why you're sorry. Don't make excuses for your behavior. Don't hesitate to specify the consequences of your actions. For example, if you cheated on your girlfriend, tell her you understand that she's going to be less trusting in the future and that's your fault.
Pay Attention to Your Non-Verbal Cues
Don't be afraid to show emotion. If you are truly remorseful you might break down and cry during the apology. This reveals your true feelings, so welcome the tears. Your apology should convey remorse, so remember that a bowed head and a soft voice are more appropriate than a defiant pose such as crossing your arms in front of your chest.
Do something tangible to demonstrate you want to fix the damage. A meaningful gift to show you've changed might be appropriate, especially if it shows you know and care about the person. For example, a copy of a new book by a favorite author, theater tickets to a play you know they'd like or even a special dessert might do the trick. Even better, ask them for suggestions about what can you do to help make things right between you.
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Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.