I’m Sorry, But: How Do You Offer a Real Apology?

A real apology holds the potential for repair and healing on all sides.

The context of apologies are relationships, be they between partners, friends, families, or nations. The goal of an apology is the reconciliation and restoration of bonds of love, trust, respect, and humanity.

There are some people who are able to apologize in a way that restores and heals. There are others who use the words “I am sorry” as a Get Out of Jail Free Card, and there are many who suffer from guilt, shame, and loss; but don’t quite know what to say or how to apologize to those they have harmed.

What Makes an Apology Effective?

In his important book, On Apology, Dr. Aaron Lazare gives us an answer. He proposes that successful apologies, be they private or public, heal because they satisfy one, if not more, psychological needs.

Here is a translation of Dr. Lazare’s list of needs into a set of six criteria for a real and effective apology.

Criteria for an Effective Apology:

The Apology Must Restore Self-Respect and Dignity

Words or behavior that make a person feel everything from slighted, dismissed, to demeaned or humiliated assault a person’s dignity and sense of self. Often the person offended feels powerless and covers their feelings with thoughts of retaliation or grudges.

The offender must, in his or her apology, restore the self-respect and dignity of the offended by acknowledging his/her own culpability, error, betrayal, and more. Essentially the offender must be willing to acknowledge a lack of personal dignity on his/her part.

I betrayed your confidence and acted in a way that violated our bond.

The Apology Must Reaffirm and Reset the Shared Values of Both Parties

By acknowledging that he/she has made a mistake and that it won’t happen again, the offender reaffirms that there is a shared set of rules and values that have been violated. If the offender does not understand what is unacceptable about what they have done—there is no restoration of the shared belief system.

I apologize for lying about using our money. I betrayed your trust. I promise to speak with you before I buy something. What I did was wrong.

The Apology Must Make it Clear that The Offenses Were Not the Victim’s Fault

When someone has been physically or psychologically assaulted, there is a tendency to make sense of the offense by blaming self.

Central to a true apology is the admission by the person apologizing that the blame belongs to them.

Apologizing by telling the wounded party, “I’m sorry, but you got me so angry,” is not an apology. It is an excuse.

I have to apologize for my behavior to your family. I am sorry. I had no right to start an argument that upset everyone. I will call them and personally apologize to them.

The Apology Must Restore Physical Safety in a Relationship

In situations of physical assault, domestic violence, bullying, digital threats, and more, an apology must not only reflect ownership of the offense but must also guarantee future safety.

I am so sorry that I hurt you. There is no excuse. I don’t blame you for wanting to leave. I have to make sure this will never happen again. I went back to AA and my sponsor helped me find an Anger Management Group. I understand that I may need to make other living arrangements for a while.

The Apology Includes “ Making Amends,” Reparation for Harm Caused by the Offense

Whether concretely or emotionally, making reparation is a crucial criterion of a truly felt apology.

We have all enjoyed the amends tied to the apology offered at Starbucks when they respond to a mistake in the order- with an apology and a refill!

In personal relationships, the person apologizing often adds to their expressed remorse with reparative action.

There is no excuse for my never going to any of your concerts. I was wrong. I am so sorry I missed something so important to you. I have changed my schedule. I will be at your concerts.

The Apology Includes Being Willing to Suffer the Consequences of the Offense

Retributive Justice

There are times in criminal and even civil cases where notwithstanding the apology offered, there are consequences that must be accepted and endured by the offender. This is termed retributive justice.

Refused Acceptance of the Apology

In personal relationships, the offender’s remorse may be expressed by shame and humiliation for their behavior as well as a willingness to make amends. There are times, however, when despite the expressed regrets and attempt to make amends, the victim is unwilling or unable to accept the apology at the time it is offered – or ever.

In cases of childhood violence, abuse, and neglect, victims often report growing up and moving on from family or finding no reason to re-connect with those in their past, despite the apology offered.

While an apology may be truly felt and well-intended, it cannot demand or be contingent on the offended person’s acceptance.

To do so is to disqualify the apology. Patience, remorse, and acceptance of the offended party’s refusal to accept the apology reflect ownership for the pain caused as well as respect for the feelings of the offended.

I am truly sorry. I see that it is hard for you to believe or trust me. I wish it were different –You have a right to your feelings.

In life, we do small, large, deliberate, sometimes unconscionable things that hurt and harm others.

To apologize is to share remorse and shame, to accept consequences, and to restore dignity and healing to those we have hurt.
To apologize is to be humbled, to atone, to reconnect with others, and to embrace a better self.