“I’m sorry." It's just two little words, right? But together, those two words pack a lot of punch. And like any impactful phrase, delivering a meaningful apology requires a bit of finesse.
Let's start with the WORST type of apology: a non-apology. That's when someone says something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way." There's no accountability. They're saying that the issue isn't what they did, it's how you reacted to it. So, a good rule of thumb: if you want to make an apology, admit you made a mistake and you want to apologize for it. Otherwise, you're just criticizing the person.
Basically, the best apologies come from the heart. And just like compliments, they should be tailored for the person on the receiving end. Know your audience – and be aware that all three of these apologies are for the person receiving them, not the person delivering them:
Apology 1: Offering Compensation
Let's say you're in a crowded coffee shop. You take a step back without looking, and you bump into someone, spilling their fresh and hot coffee down their shirt. An easy apology would be to say, "I'm so sorry about that. May I buy you another cup?"
The "compensation" is simply the offer of replacing what was lost or broken. So, you may also offer compensation in terms of time and an act of service. For example, let’s say you wake up cranky and take it out on your partner. To apologize, you may say, “I apologize for being short with you earlier. I'm going to make it up to you by being extra sweet this week – or by making your favorite dinner tonight.”
Apology 2: Empathizing with Their Experience
An empathetic apology is one in which you let the victim know that you understand how they're feeling. These apologies are best used for someone you have a close, intimate relationship – that you want to maintain. This can be a close friend, family member, or partner.
For example, let's say it’s your best friend’s birthday party and you arrive two hours late. Even if it was due to traffic or some other valid excuse, it is still best to acknowledge how the other person feels. You can say, “I apologize for being late. You must have felt like you are not a priority, and that’s not the case. You are very important to me.”
This lets them know that you understand their reaction, and you're suggesting that you would feel the same way if you were in their shoes.
Apology 3: Acknowledging That You Violated the Rules/Norms
This apology applies to when you do something that affects a group as a whole, like a group of friends or a family get together. Recognize the norms you broke, let the "team" know you recognize the violation, and tell them how you'll do better next time. Examples include being less competitive during game night, drinking less at the next function, and so on. It might feel embarrassing, but not addressing it can lead to resentment and long-term consequences. You want to get invited to the next one!
However, All Genuine Apologies Are Effective
These examples are just that: examples. All an apology needs to be genuine is accountability and sincerity. When you’re accountable, you own what you've done without an excuse. When you’re sincere, your tone reflects it, and the recipient can feel like they can trust your apology.
Finally, once you have mastered the art of apologies, don’t forget to say that you’re sorry to yourself. Then forgive and move forward! Forgiveness is the second half of the apology dance, and it's equally important. Besides, if you can't forgive yourself, you can't expect anyone else to!