What Makes A Meaningful Apology?

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How many times do we utter “I’m sorry” in a lifetime? Even as kids, we’re taught the importance of apologizing. As soon as we know how to talk, the adults in our lives drill those two little words into our brains.

Because so many of us have been apologizing for so long, we might assume that we know how to make amends. But when we apologize, are we really saying what we need to? Or are we simply going through perfunctory motions? 

Turns out, an effective apology requires a couple of different elements. 

Ingredients For An Effective Apology

Say Sorry and Express Remorse

Yes, an apology should always include “I’m sorry.” Along with those words, don’t hesitate to express any regret. It’s natural to feel ashamed in the wake of a mistake, and vocalizing your feelings indicates you’re aware of the hurt you caused.

Acknowledge Your Behavior And Its Impact  

Specifically bring up what you did wrong and how it affected the other person (“I talked over you and I know this makes you feel overlooked.”).  Not only are you expressing empathy, you’re owning up to your behavior. Studies have shown that holding yourself accountable is actually the most important and impactful part of an apology.

Offer a Solution

Think of what you can do to make reparations and offer a solution. Sometimes, there’s not much that can be done to fix a situation. In that case, make a commitment to improve and explain what you can do going forward.   

Ask For Forgiveness (Sometimes)  

When it comes to certain apologies, forgiveness depends on the context. For minor offenses or more formal settings (like a business transaction) it might not be necessary. But if you’ve hurt someone close to you, asking for forgiveness can plant the seed for healing.

What Doesn’t Help  

Minimizing Your Actions

If someone has been hurt, no amount of convincing or dancing around the issue will change their feelings. Don’t try to downplay what happened or brush it off as not a big deal.  


Saying “I’m the worst” or “I know I’m horrible” usually only serves the offending party by relieving their shame. Apologies are about the other person: insulting yourself only puts the energy and focus back on you.  

Explanations That Shift Blame

Sometimes we’re tempted to explain our behavior during an apology. This is fine, but be wary: certain explanations can sound like excuses. If you’re unsure about whether you should explain your behavior, say “I know my reasons are not an excuse” or just cut the explanation out altogether.

Vague, Passive Language

Wishy-washy statements like “Mistakes were made” and “Things happened that shouldn’t have” might acknowledge a problem, but they also read as non-apology apologies (i.e. you’re not taking responsibility).

Apologizing is no easy feat. Sometimes, we’re too afraid to apologize because it means facing our guilt and imperfections. But an honest and thorough apology does more to relieve guilt and repair a relationship than brushing an incident under the rug. Have the courage it takes to make things right again. The hardest gestures are often the most worthwhile. 


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