sorrySorry, but saying sorry can be a sorry experience for the inexperienced apologist.   It’s not that you apologize, but HOW you apologize, that really makes the difference.   As a public service, we offer this brief tutorial on how to say “I’m sorry”.    An effective apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilization.  We’re sorry if you believe otherwise, but “I’m Sorry” is the building block of Peace.  And Peace is what makes it possible for friendships, marriages, groups and even nations to exist, if not thrive.. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.  If done incompetently, it can lead to war.   You don’t have to do it often, but you do have to do it right.

The keys to a meaningful mea culpa is to keep in mind that apologies are all about restoring trust (and ensuring safety).  And to do it right, you have to remember the six easy pieces of apologizing:

  1. Acknowledge responsibility
  2. Offer to fix the offense….even if you can’t fully repair the problem you caused.
  3. Express regret
  4. Explain what went wrong without blaming others
  5. Declare repentance
  6. Request forgiveness

A 2016 study called An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies came up with these six essential elements of saying you are sorry.   While they appear common- sensical, it is the rare apology that contains all six of these essential elements.   These six components of an apology were defined from previous research and presented to subjects—singly and in combination—in the form of component definitions and in the context of a trust violation scenario. Results indicate that not all apologies are viewed equally; apologies with more components were more effective than those with fewer components, and certain components were deemed more important than others. Moreover, apologies following competence-based trust violations were seen as more effective than apologies following integrity-based violations. Implications and future directions for research in the structure of effective apologies are presented.

It also helps to keep gender in mind.  In a study that polled subjects on hypothetical offence scenarios women felt more transgressions were deserving of an apology and would be more likely to say sorry. In essence, women are not only more apt to apologize, but they are more likely to expect an apology.   You might get away with a “shake it off” or “no blood, no foul” throwaway with a guy.  But that won’t fly with the fairer sex.

You must also be specific: no glossing over in generalities like, “I’m sorry for what I have done.” To be a success, the apology has to be specific–“I betrayed you by talking behind your back” or “I missed your daughter’s wedding.”  Then you need to show you understand the nature of your wrongdoing and the impact it had on the person–“I know I hurt you and I am so very sorry.” This is one of the most unifying elements of the apology. By acknowledging that a moral norm was violated, both parties affirm a similar set of values. The apology reestablishes a common moral ground.

Explaining yourself also takes some serious work.  An effective explanation makes the point that what you did isn’t representative of who you are. You may offer that you were tired, sick, drunk, distracted, or in love–and that it will not happen again. Such an explanation protects your self-concept. For example, a  sailor apologized at his court-martial for brutally beating to death a homosexual shipmate: “I can’t apologize enough for my actions. I am not trying to make any excuses for what happened that night. It was horrible, but I am not a horrible person.”

Another challenge in expressing remorse is that a good apology also has to make you suffer.   Aaron Lazare explained in Psychology Today that you have to “express genuine, soul-searching regret for your apology to be taken as sincere”. If you don’t communicate guilt, anxiety, and shame, people are going to question the depth of your remorse. The anxiety and sadness demonstrate that the potential loss of the relationship matters to you. Guilt tells the offended person that you’re distressed over hurting him. And shame communicates your disappointment with yourself over the incident.

Some good recent examples of apologies range from this one by a celebrity egotist (not Donald Trump) and these by governments seeking to resolve historical wounds. Take the apology before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, by the former President of South Africa, F. W. deKlerk, explicitly described the harm and suffering caused by Apartheid.“I apologize…to the millions of South Africans who suffered the wrenching disruption of forced removals in respect of their homes, businesses and land. Who over the years suffered the shame of being arrested for past law offences. Who over the decades and indeed centuries suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination. Who for a long time were prevented from exercising their full democratic rights in the land of their birth. Who were unable to achieve their full potential because of job reservation. And who in any other way suffered as a result of discriminatory legislation and policies.”

If you are struggling with an apology, there are a number of resources on the Net that will help you over that humiliating hump.  Whether you’ve hurt someone you love, enjoy, or just plain need as your ally in an office situation, an apology may well rekindle the troubled relationship.  You may also have purely empathic reasons for apologizing, i.e. you regret that you have caused someone to suffer and you apologize to diminish or end their pain.  Or you might apologize to avoid a guilty conscience. Whatever your motive, what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished–I’m the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In expressing your regret properly, you can restore trust, preserve peace and forge a connection with others so that you can be the best social animal that you can be.