How do you apologize for something hurtful? Crafting an apology that can make the person you’ve hurt feel better is no small feat. In fact, in order to be truly effective, an apology must contain these six components, a 2016 study published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research found.
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Acknowledgment of responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer of repair
- Request for forgiveness
And that doesn’t even take into account the specific person you’re addressing.
Dr. Jennifer Thomas, co-author of When Sorry Isn’t Enough, TED speaker and psychologist, has conducted research, alongside Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, to come up with five apology languages: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting and requesting forgiveness.
“Apologies really differ from person to person according to what their apology language is and so I found, for example, that saying, ‘I’m wrong and I’m sorry’ will reach 77% of people,” Thomas explains. “But the remaining 23% are waiting to hear three other things and that’s why we have our five apology languages.”
Still, apologies should be tailored to the person you’re apologizing to. Here, experts share research-backed tips for creating the perfect mea culpa for each and every person in your life.
Apologizing to a romantic partner:
“Staying connected emotionally is key to maintaining a healthy relationship,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “So it’s important to express your regret and request forgiveness. That means never placing any blame on the other person or say things like, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ Instead, say, ‘I’m sorry I raised my voice,’ to show that you take full ownership for your actions.”
Thomas also says that you need to make your devotion to your partner clear. “If it’s a romantic partner, something that’s really important is your commitment,” she says. In order to do this, Thomas recommends incorporating her fourth apology language — declaration of repentance — by specifically outlining how things are going to be different moving forward. Thomas says this lets them know you’re thinking about your future together.
Apologizing to a co-worker:
The future matters when it comes to a peer you work with too, but the approach should be different.
“I think a key word with coworkers is trust,” Thomas says, emphasizing they need to know you won’t hurt their reputation. In order to get this across in your apology, she recommends combining the two most popular apology languages: 40% of people most want to hear us say ‘I was wrong,’ while the other 40% of people most want to hear us say ‘I’m sorry.’ By combining the two, you may guarantee that you’ve crafted an apology that 80% of people will feel connected to.
“Resist the urge to bring anyone else into the situation when you’re apologizing to a co-worker,” adds Morin. “Don’t blame the boss, the company, or your other team members for your behavior. Stick to ‘I messages’ like, ‘I really let my emotions get the better of me,’ as you take responsibility for your actions.”
Apologizing to a friend:
“When apologizing to a friend, it may be appropriate to offer to repair your wrongdoing,” says Morin who suggests offering to take your co-worker to lunch after that missed coffee date. “While you can’t undo what you did wrong, you can offer to do something that shows you value the relationship and you’re invested in doing whatever you can to make it work.”
“Your commitment to the friendship is a good thing to reiterate at the beginning or the end of the apology,” says Thomas. Her advice also mirrors Morin’s by suggesting you go with apology language number three on her list — making amends — in order to truly aim to make up for a wrongdoing with a friend.
Apologizing to a parent:
People make three common excuses when they’re apologizing to people: they blame, they excuse and they deny what they’ve done, according to Thomas’s research.
“I think people make the mistake of making excuses when they’re apologizing to their parents, and I think they need to make the apology and let it stand on its own,” she says. In order to do this, she recommends incorporating all five apology languages and biting your tongue to avoid making any sort of explanation or excuse.
People are looking for recognition, not the reason you let them down. “Your parents know that you’re not perfect and they’re well aware of your not-so-great qualities,” adds Morin. “But that doesn’t mean your offenses should be brushed off. If you hurt one of your parents, acknowledge it,” she says, recommending an apology that centers on both regret and a request for forgiveness.
“Say something like, ‘I’m so sorry that I didn’t show up to your family get-together after I said I would. I know how important that was to you. Please forgive me for missing it.’ Then, focus on changing your behavior in the future to show that you truly are sorry.”
Apologizing to a child:
Yes, apologies matter to kids, and they want to hear a lot of the same things adults do. Bonus: it’s a teachable moment.
“An expression of regret is key to giving an effective apology to a child,” Morin says. “Be willing to use feeling words like, ‘I feel really sad that I let you down,’ or ‘I am mad at myself for messing up.’ Then, make it clear that you’re going to try and do better next time. Your child will learn a lot about life from the way you apologize so be a good role model and accept full responsibility for your actions.”
“If you’re apologizing to your child, first, I would give you a gold star because it’s so important for us to do that,” Thomas says. “We need to model the apology languages for them.
Avoid a common mistake: expecting a child to return the apology. “Your apology needs to stand on its own so you just offer it and make sure that, even if they don’t reciprocate, that your apology still stands.”
When apologizing to a brother or sister, Thomas believes that simply saying “I apologize” can actually go a very long way. “It lets them know that you’re not going to blame, excuse or deny — those three mistakes,” she says. “It sets the stage for you to use whichever apology language you think is best — or all five if you have time — and it gets their attention.”
Apologizing shows respect to that sibling who, because you grew up with them and may have a history of offending each other, might feel like you don’t respect them, according to Thomas.
Resist the temptation to drudge up old history, Morin warns. “Reminding your sibling of all the times they’ve hurt you, only makes things worse. Stick to the facts about the current situation by explaining what went wrong in the current offense only. Try saying something like, ‘I messed up. I shouldn’t have told that story about you in front of everyone. I’m really sorry.’”