How to Apologize: 5 Steps to Forgiveness

A blonde woman reading a book with a framed sign that says, "I'm sorry for the things I've said when it was winter."

Do not offer any excuses.

So, you want to learn how to apologize.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves.
— Eugene Kennedy

Do any of the following sound familiar:

I believe forgiveness is the best form of love in any relationship. It takes a strong person to say they’re sorry and an even stronger person to forgive.
— Yolanda Hadid
  • You feel sad and regretful.

  • You break someone's trust.

  • You failed to keep a promise.

  • You were selfishness toward someone who loves you.

And here is a list of what you might be looking for in this article:

  • Are you trying to figure out how to express your regret?

  • Are you looking for the courage to admit responsibility?

  • How can you make amends?

You are in luck because we are going to learn how to apologize like an honest, upright person! Why? Because you know that if you can say sorry, you will remove that feeling of guilt that is ruining your day. But it is critical that we remember there are no shortcuts in apologizing. Vulnerability is the currency of forgiveness.

It really does not matter who you are apologizing to. You might have hurt the feelings of a friend, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, wife, husband, father, brother, sister, colleague or anyone else. You are going to need to be vulnerable, admit your weakness, and authentically express your regret.

Learning how to apologize authentically is difficult.

The reason has more to do with your pride and your insecurity than the difficulty of saying words. Anyone can say I am sorry, but relatively few people can reach into their heart and reveal why they did what they did and why it hurts to know that they hurt someone they loved.

We all experience those terrible arguments that leave both parties feeling resentful and angry. We all act needlessly selfish now and then.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you are guilty, there is no way of getting out of admitting that you were wrong. No one likes being in the wrong, least of all when we feel guilty for our actions. We hold onto the hope that we were justified so that we can try to avoid feeling guilty.  When we know we are wrong, when we know that we need to admit to the other person that we were wrong, we often fail to do it due to our pride.

To overcome this mental block, realize that the problem isn't who is right or wrong. The real problem is how you made someone you respect/love feel.

When you hurt someone, you fill them (and probably yourself) with dark clouds of negative thoughts and emotions.

I know people who are from the same family who are so angry with each other that they have not spoken to one another in 20 years.

What if both parties are guilty?

A red punching bag on a table.

A person is not your punching bag.

Sometimes, both parties are guilty. In that situation, you probably expect the other person will stubborn and hard-headed. Why should you ask them for forgiveness if (a) that means acting like they were in the right, (b) placing the blame on your shoulders, and (c) feeling rejected when they do not return the favor?

The problem is that you care more about what the other person thinks of you than you think of yourself. It would be better for you to say sorry and walk away. In cases where you were at least partially in the wrong, wouldn't you rather know you are brave enough to apologize, and admit that you were wrong? Who cares what they do? You are not their guardian. You are responsible for you.

Success.com has a great article that lists quotes about making excuses and learning to take responsibility for yourself.

With that in mind, lets take a look at how to apologize to someone in a way that yields amazing results. Our goal is to learn how to apologize in such a way that you make the other person feel better.

There are five steps to any great apology.

Step 1: Say that you are sorry.

The first ingredient is the verbal apology. Do not go overboard with a dramatic speech. If you do, you risk sounding absurd and unbelievable. Leave the theatrics at home. Keep your apology concise. Avoid saying too much or straying from the point. Do not dilute your message. You are talking to a person, not acting in a soap opera. Be direct and speak to their heart.

There are no buts in a good apology.

The worst mistake that you can make while apologizing is to condition your apology using a ‘but.’ There are no excuses in an apology. By definition, an apology is you taking responsibility for your actions when you ask for forgiveness. If you were not responsible for your actions, you should not be apologizing. You are a person who controls their actions, not some robot with a badly programmed operating system. Forget:

  • But I can a bad day.

  • But my boss made me angry.

  • But the traffic was bad.

  • But you don’t listen to me.

  • But I didn’t drink coffee yet.

  • Etc.

A mug that exemplifies the excuse "I woke up like this" sitting on a bed.

People tend to deliver apologies that simultaneously try to buy favor and absolve them from responsibility. Do not try to justify or rationalize your actions. People respect people who can take responsibility for themselves. People to not respect or admire those who make excuses. Why? It means that that person has such a low opinion and self-control that their environment controls them; they are a slave. It is in your best interest to take responsibility.

GK Chesterton said that a stiff apology is a second insult. Stiff apologies are apologies watered down with excuses or justifications. They make the apology more about the person apologizing than the person whose feelings we hurt. If you try to take this shortcut, you insult the feelings of the person to whom you're apologizing.

Step 2: Express your regret.

You may think that saying you are sorry accomplishes this. It does not. People say sorry all the time. I am sorry is the phrase that leads you into the meat of the apology. The main course is your statement of regret for the mistake.

Your apology needs to feel like you have put your heart and soul into your statement of remorse. Do not be afraid to show genuine emotion. Authentic emotion will demonstrate your humility and sincerity, both of which are critical to winning back trust and respect.

Nail the timing.

A man sitting on a leather coach working on his laptop surrounding by a clock.

Be patient.

Remember that timing is very important. If you are going to make a good apology, you are going to need to take some time to reflect on your thoughts. It is a terrible idea to rush into an apology immediately after the incident concludes. It is likely that you will fail to address the heart of the problem. You are probably upset by a different thing than the person you want to apologize to. You will likely confuse your feelings for theirs.

Additionally, hasty apologies feel insincere. People will think your apology is a knee-jerk reaction to save face rather than a genuine recognition of your mistake!

Even better, if you wait for a few hours (or even days) you give the person you wronged time to reflect and calm down. They will be more willing to accept your apology in this state of mind. If they do not accept your apology, they never were going to in the first place. If you had apologized earlier, you would have simply been spinning your wheels.

Think about it. After you hurt someone, that person is fuming with anger! They are probably saying that they hate you in their head.  They are going to be defensive! If you let them cool down, you increase the odds that they will accept your apology.

Do you remember the proverb that says anger opens the mouth and shuts the mind?

Step 3: Acknowledge that you messed up.

You have a lot of acknowledging to do. You need to acknowledge the situation, their feelings, and maybe even your feelings. You see, people do not trust themselves or their perceptions. We doubt ourselves so much that we often feel that we are fighting against both the outside world and our self-doubt.

When you acknowledge the person you are apologizing too, you give them clarity. Often, a huge portion of our negative emotions can be explained as confusion. They will be grateful that you believed them and justified their feelings. I cannot over emphasize how important this factor is.  

Equally important, if you (as the offender) acknowledge the situation and the person you offended’s feelings, you will make yourself more sensitive to the other person’s feelings. You will be far less likely to offend them by apologizing inappropriately. The purpose of this step is to humanize the situation. You are reminding yourself that you are not talking to your mental image of someone who upset you, but a real human being with thoughts and emotions that you injured. Make sure the person to whom you are apologizing, understands that you know that your actions were not justified and that their feelings are.

Step 4: Show a little empathy.

When you apologize, you should not try to be a logician. You have stepped into the realm of feelings and emotions. After you acknowledge the pain you caused, do not list out a list of reasons that you messed up. Do not try to indict yourself.

After you acknowledge their feelings, it is time to talk about your own.  You want to focus on being empathetic. You need to demonstrate that you fully comprehend how your actions hurt the other person. Tell the person how you would feel if you were in their place.

Ask yourself:

  • How did I affect the person I hurt?

  • How would I feel if they did this to me?

Did you make them sad? Did you make them afraid? Demonstrate empathy while you are apologizing. Let them know that you are on their side.

And if you do not know what to say, here are a list of empathetic statements you can try.

Step 5: Ask for forgiveness.

A man and a woman hugging each other after apologizing.

By employing the previous four ingredients in an authentic way, you have hopefully improved the person’s judgement of you. If all went well, your integrity impressed them and put them in the mood to take the higher ground themselves. This is critical because it is their responsibility to carry out the last stage of an apology: offering forgiveness.

Your humility should incline the person to forgiveness. If they feel that you understand why you messed up, what emotions you caused, and that you are genuinely empathetic they will be far more likely to offer their forgiveness.

Remember that it is in the other person’s best interest to forgive you if they are a genuinely good person. If they are not, or they enjoy some sort of pathology that attracts them to drama and resentment, forget about them.

Forgiveness is in their best interest, because it will give them a sense of peace and closure. They want resolution as badly as you do. Think about how rare it is for an individual to show true, authentic nobility by having the integrity to admit that they were wrong.