How to say you're sorry

We Brits are infamous for apologising -- you’d almost think our third word after “mama” and “dada” were “Sorry!” But the casual apology, repeated umpteen times per day, can become a bit meaningless, if not outright tedious. What about when we need to apologise for real? “Learning how and when to apologise is an important life skill,” says Nigel Summerton, an experienced relationship councillor and the senior partner at Plymouth-based Personal and Relationship Counselling. We spoke to Summerton and other relationship councillors about how to do it right.

Tip no. 1: Say it like you mean it
A quick, off-the-cuff apology can sometimes do more harm than good. For it to mean anything to the recipient, it has to mean something to you. “It starts with acknowledging and genuinely regretting a transgression,” says Summerton. “You should want to put things right, rather than simply apologising to keep the peace.” On the other hand, says Mo Kurimbokus, a supervising relationship counsellor with Relate (a national federated charity with over 70 years’ experience supporting the nation’s relationships), you don’t want to mull over your feelings too long before speaking up. “Sometimes people need some space to calm down, but if you know you’re in the wrong, apologising quickly can stop a situation in its tracks,” he says. Either way, make sure it’s sincere. Otherwise, regardless of when you say it, it will fall on deaf ears.

Tip no. 2: And if you don’t mean it, don’t say it!
Apologising to make another person happy may cool things off for now, but over time it inevitably leads to resentment. A better tactic is to engage the person -- find out what they’re feeling and why they seem to expect an apology. Says Annie Wilson, a partner at Norfolk-based Family and Relationship Counselling and a practising Relate councillor with over 16 years’ experience, “Ask for clarification about where the other person is coming from. In that way, you can at least begin to understand what is happening between you and try to build from there.” You may even find you agree with their position and feel that an apology is in order -- only now, you can give it genuinely.

Tip no. 3: Get your apology accepted
Even with the best of intentions, a simply apology often isn’t enough. Of course it depends on the nature and depth of the transgression, but assuming you did more than accidentally step on someone’s toes, you need to give it your heartfelt all. Wilson offers a four-point plan for ensuring that your apology is virtually impervious to rejection.

  1. Listen carefully to the other person’s complaint.
  2. Say you’re sorry without implying any blame. In other words, take responsibility for what happened and use "I" rather than "you" statements.
  3. Offer a strategy for change.
  4. Listen to the other person’s response and follow through on whatever is agreed upon.

Tip no. 4: Give forgiveness a chance
At this point, you’ve really done all you possibly can in the apology department. But, warns Kurimbokus, don’t confuse acceptance of an apology with forgiveness. The final step in the apology process, forgiveness, has to be earned, and it can take time for the other person to regain their trust in you. “Depending on the dispute and the amount of pain caused, you may need to put together a game plan to begin to repair the hurt,” Kurimbokus says. “Talking things though with a trusted third party can often be a good way to start.”