So you know you messed up. You hurt someone else, whether it’s a friend, family member, or significant other. You may have spoken harshly, teased someone insensitively, failed to follow through on a promise, or in some other way disappointed or let down someone close to you.
In the best-case scenario, you say “I’m sorry,” and that’s about it. But often we’re embarrassed and want to move on so quickly that we don’t make sort of apology that is going to help repair your relationship. A sincere, genuine, and deeply felt apology can not only a fix the situation, it can make your relationship even stronger and closer than it was before.
So how do you make a genuine apology and show that you really mean it? Let’s go through the steps. For our purposes, we’ll use the example of forgetting plans to have dinner with your girlfriend and went out with your friends instead.
1. Use specifics when you say you’re sorry
Just saying “Sorry” doesn’t cut it. “I’m really sorry you had to eat alone” is much better. It shows you’re not trying to avoid a discussion of what you did wrong.
2. Ask how the other person feels
Yeah, you think you know why she’s mad, but maybe you don’t have the full story. Asking her to share more of her feelings will make her realize that you genuinely want to connect and understand her perspective. This will make her feel loved and close, in spite of your mistake. Also, it gives you a chance to correct any assumptions that your action may have led the other party to make.
You: “What were you feeling when I didn’t text?”
Girlfriend: “I was sad. I was like, he doesn’t care enough to even contact me. Is that true?”
You: “No, I love you. I genuinely forgot we were eating together tonight. But I should have texted to check, since I forget stuff a lot.”
3. You openly acknowledge the other person’s feelings
This is called empathy, and it means that you are trying to understand exactly how the other person’s perspective. Try to remember a time when you felt the same way.
Example: “I really get how upset you are that I didn’t remember to text you and that I keep forgetting plans. You feel like I was thoughtless and selfish. I actually felt the same way when I was waiting around for my brother to call me last week to hang out, and then he never did.”
Remember, this is not the time to bring up anything negative about the person to whom you’re apologizing. Definitely don’t say, “I know how you feel because you didn’t text me yesterday all day so I had no idea if we had plans later.”
4. Show that you’re committed to change
Come up with a plan to address this situation in the future so it doesn’t happen again. You want to show that this episode has taught you something. You’re going to try to behave differently in the future, so you’re less likely to hurt the other person again.
Example: “I don’t want this to happen again, I hate seeing you so upset. How about we sit down on Sunday nights and decide which nights we are definitely eating together and then I can put them in my calendar?”
These four steps will help you express your regret and sadness for having hurt another person, as well as convey that you understand their perspective and are committed to not messing up in the same way again. Instead of a quick “I’m sorry”—which can easily turn into a huge fight, as you may have experienced—these steps will ensure that your apology ends up making the relationship more trusting, solid, and close.