How to Apologize Effectively

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By Chantelle K. Dockter,
MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW,.

Question: My husband always says he is sorry when he upsets me, yet I struggle with forgiving him and I am not sure why. He then gets mad because he states that he has apologized and I should get over it. Why is this so hard for me to do?

Answer: There could be several answers to this question depending on your particular situation; however it sounds to me like a classic illustration of the difference between the words “I am sorry” and a heartfelt apology. We are all guilty at times of uttering the “sorry” word while our attitude or actions don’t match up. It is no wonder why the words “I’m sorry” lose meaning and bitterness grows.

When we are wronged, we feel anger, hurt, and often mistrust towards the person who has wronged us. We feel that justice must be served to make things right. And while justice can bring some relief, it is not justice that restores relationships. More than justice, we often really desire reconciliation and for the wrong-doer to “own” their mistake and display a contrite heart. Unfortunately many of us have not mastered the art of a true apology. “Sorry” is just another word unless there is meaning and feeling behind it.

As humans, we do have a remarkable ability to forgive, and this forgiveness can heal even the most broken of relationships. Sincere apologies make reconciliation a very real possibility. By now you are probably asking what makes an apology sincere. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas explore this important topic in their book “The Five Languages of Apology”, which I highly recommend. They break down the art of apology into the following five components. You do not necessarily need to offer all five languages to offer an effective apology. Like love languages, each of the five elements of an apology will resonant differently with each individual, and some will hold a greater impact on that person than others. The more intimate the relationship, such as with a husband and a wife, the more you will learn about what language they need to hear the most for true forgiveness and reconciliation to occur.

1.    Expressing Regret. “I am sorry.” This is the emotional aspect of an apology. It shows that you regret the hurt, disappointment, and pain that you have caused another. It displays your realization that you have offended another. The words “I’m sorry” can be very effective if they are sincere. It helps to be specific about what you are sorry about.

2.    Accepting Responsibility. “I was wrong.” It is very easy to blame your mistakes on someone or something else. It is human nature to want to ease our own guilt by justifying or excusing our behavior. To admit wrong-doing shows sincerity and helps to soften the other’s heart.

3.    Making Restitution. “What can I do to make it right?” This also shows sincerity as it puts action behind the words. Doing something to try to make things right speaks to the justice piece that makes up a part of all of us,that in some sense the wrong will be “paid for”.

4.    Genuinely Repenting. “I’ll try not to do that again.” This is important, as it is the repetition of offending behavior that is often the most disturbing and negates the “I’m sorry” that repeatedly is stated. Repenting means to turn from the undesirable behavior. It shows the intent of change.

5.    Requesting Forgiveness. “Will you please forgive me?” Requesting forgiveness demonstrates your desire to see the relationship fully restored. It is also another way to show that you have taken responsibility for the wrong-doing.

6.    These five components of apology can be used in any and all relationships. As a therapist, I have seen both sides of the coin in my office. I have seen hearts soften and healing occur when the above components are present. Sadly, I have also seen hearts remain hard and bitterness grow when individuals refuse to own their behavior and seek true reconciliation. Be the first in your relationships to put these principles into practice when the need occurs and see what happens.

Written By,
Chantelle K. Dockter, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW