The Power of Saying Sorry
A bad apology can ruin a relationship, but there’s science behind a solid one. Here’s how to own up the right way.
If you’re like us, just thinking about apologizing triggers that hair-pulling, hand-wringing, don’t-make-me-do-it dread—so much of it, in fact, that we would rather camp out in denial mode forever. (“If I don’t admit that I ditched Devin last night, it’s like it never happened . . . right?”) But apologies are actually like life hacks: A good one can help you skip over the messiest drama, bringing your relationship back to a happy place faster. “An effective apology doesn’t just heal the wound for the other person,” says Guy Winch, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid. “It’ll dissolve your guilt too.” On the flip side, a bad apology can ruin a friendship even faster than total silence, meaning: You’ve got to seize your chance to say #SorrySoSorry—and get it right.
So how do you pull off a sincere apology without messing it up? Experts have actually studied what makes an “I’m sorry” statement fly or flop. Turn the page to test your sorry skills—then learn how to construct your own perfect apology to patch things up.
Test Your Sorry Smarts
1. The Apology: You’re crazy late for band practice, so you rush up to your conductor: “Sorry! I was planning to be here early, but it’s raining, so the train wasn’t on time.” You want to back up your lateness with facts—he needs to know it’s not your fault!
Does it fly or flop?
Flop! Yup, it’s a total fail. “This is about you, when it should be about the person you hurt,” Winch says.
Fix it! Don’t make excuses! Say what you should have done differently and how your mistake affected the other person: “I know my lateness kept you waiting and probably frustrated you too. Next time, I’ll leave earlier.”
2. The Apology: You’re with your crew when you start ragging on one of them. Everyone thinks you’re hilarious—except that friend. Later, you pull him aside and say, “Hey, I’m sorry, but it’s no big deal. And c’mon, everyone laughed at the joke—not at you!”
Does it fly or flop?
Flop! Winch says this apology is only half-baked: “There’s a violation of loyalty that you didn’t address.”
Fix it! Your friend has to hear that you acknowledge his pain and respect his feelings: “I can imagine that you felt betrayed. I don’t want to make you feel that way, and I promise I won’t do it again. Will you please forgive me?”
3. The Apology: You lost track of time on Friday night. When your dad busts you sneaking in, you say: “I’m sorry that I missed my curfew. I know I’m wrong, and I understand if I can’t go out again until I’ve regained your trust.”
Does it fly or flop?
Fly! This apology works because you point out exactly where you had a lapse in judgment. “It’s important to acknowledge that you’re apologizing because you knew a rule but broke it anyway,” explains Winch. (Without that, you’re really only apologizing for getting caught, which sounds shady!) You’re also expressing that you’ve learned from your mistakes—an admission your dad can take as proof that you’re mature enough to be trusted again.
Do's and Don'ts of Owning a Mistake
A sincere “SORRY!” is a tricky deal—but these tips will get it done right.
• Apologize ASAP in person. Texts or tweets can come off as harsh and sarcastic. For an apology to sound sincere, you need to talk face-to-face.
• Watch your body language. Make eye contact, put your phone down, and keep your arms uncrossed. These cues will show you take the apology seriously
• Have a post-apology check-in. At the end of your conversation, ask if there’s anything else you can say or do. It shows how much you want to rebuild trust.
• Be defensive. When you say, “Sorry, but [insert excuse here],” you’re not taking responsibility, says Jennifer Thomas, co-author of When Sorry Isn’t Enough.
• Forget to actually ask: “Will you please forgive me?” You may think it’s implied, but no apology is complete without these magic words.
• Apologize just to make peace. If you truly don’t feel you have any fault, don’t apologize. Apologies lose their power if they aren’t genuinely given!
Forgive in 4 Steps
When it comes to fixing a friendship, accepting an apology is just as important as giving one out.
1. Admit The Hurt: Shrugging it off only makes the wound worse, but being honest shows maturity—and starts the peace-making process right.
2. Own The Feels: Got a ragefest in your brain? That’s totally valid. You were hurt and have a right to feel angry. Both of you should acknowledge that
3. Keep Perspective: The BFF that blew you off? They’re still your best friend—they just made a mistake. Know that your relationship is bigger than this one bump.
4. Forget Forgetting: Some of the pain may never go away, and that’s okay! Working through tough times is what makes a friendship strong.
Images: Andy Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images (playing instruments); iStock/Getty Images (kid being bullied); Shutterstock (girl and dad talking); John Ueland for Scholastic (flowers)