Let's face it: No one likes to apologize. Apologies are often difficult because we don't want to admit to being wrong in the first place — and then to take responsibility for hurting or upsetting someone else on top of that? That's tough stuff. Personally, I think many people are reluctant to apologize to others because we don't know the best way to apologize. But the good news is that, like any other skill, how to apologize sincerely and effectively is something you can learn — with a little help from science.
Society often sets expectations for how people communicate with one another, and apologies are no exception. For men, it's ingrained that they don't need to apologize, and that saying sorry is seen as a sign of weakness. For women, it's the opposite: We're often taught to apologize for everything, from a minor miscommunication to bearing the weight for an entire team's project in the office. Of course, there are situations where apologies are appropriate and necessity — that is, if you want to build and foster close relationships, and even if you want a good relationship with your coworkers and boss.
So, what is the best way to apologize? Unsurprisingly, there is no single best approach to apologies for all situations. For instance, if you're apologizing to your mother for years' worth of mistakes or mistreatment, you'll want a different approach than if you're apologizing to a new friend for running late to lunch. I know subjectivity can feel stressful, especially if you're prone to wanting to know the absolute "right" way to go about something, but the science says it's relative, and therefore all about timing. It makes sense when you think about it; we're all complex and unique, so not everything is going to be one-size-fits-all, apologies included.
Here are some science based tips for how to give the most effective apology:
1. Allow People Time To Process Their Emotions Before You Apologize To Them
This one actually surprised me, but it makes a lot of sense. Research by Aaron Lazare, author of On Apologies, suggests that when people apologize too quickly, they can miss an important step in the recovery process. Basically, the idea is that if we rush to apologize, we aren't giving the person we've wronged time to express their feelings or mediate on what's happened. Personally, I can definitely think of times both when I've done that, and when I've had others do that to me. I think it's a sign of good intentions —f that people care about your feelings and don't want you to misunderstand them — but I can also see how it's might potentially stall the improvement of the problem. Just apologizing and moving on too quickly doesn't necessarily solve the root issue.
2. Don't Wait Until The End Of A Long Conversation To Apologize
Based on research out of a 2013 study appearing in the Western Journal of Communication, it appears that when couples sit down to talk about recurring issues in their relationships (like irritating habits or time management, for example), they experience more concerns about serious issues like jealousy and trust if the conversation goes over 10 minutes and an apology is not present at the beginning. I think the rationale here is that people crave a reassuring reminder that things are still OK, so when a conversation about something minor continues, people's alarm bells go off that the conversation is actually about something deeper.
3. Make Your Apology About The Person You Wronged — Not About You
As Kimberly Eclipse at Psychology Today points out, apologies "are the work of the brave." Essentially, this refers to the requisite amount of courage it takes to own up to your own wrongdoings and ask for someone's forgiveness. However, as Eclipse points out, apologies are not actually about you. Sure, there's a degree to which you're likely motivated because you want to be forgiven, but the apology should actually be focused on the other person. Frame your apology based on healing the situation between you and the other person, not how to make the other person like you or trust you again.
4. Be Proactive With A Solution
Of course, this is situation dependent, but generally it's a good move to suggest a solution or improvement for the future. This might mean that you're going to work on something, such as avoiding using certain language your friend or partner finds hurtful. This might also entail you actively changing your behaviors to be more inclusive to your loved one's happiness — for instance, if your partner expressed to you that they feel you don't help around the home enough, along with your apology, it's a good move to suggest specific tasks or chores that you'll make an effort to take on from that conversation forward. Suggesting specific action sends the message that you take your apology seriously and care about the other person's long-term happiness enough that you will change your ways to show respect and care. This is a great example of a time when actions speak louder than words.
5. Be Mindful Of Your Body Language
Yes, apologizing to someone can be tense, stressful, and nerve-wrecking, especially if you're doing it to someone you care about deeply. Heck, it can feel especially miserable just knowing you're the one in the wrong. However, it's important to be mindful of your body language and facial expressions. Dr. Gary Wood, a psychologist, suggests keeping your body language "open" and maintaining an equal height and stance with the person you're apologizing to. You don't want, for example, to appear to be towering over the other person, or later realize you gave the entire apology with your arms crossed around your chest. Remember, too, the importance of maintaining eye contact when it comes to building trust and intimacy in a conversation.
All in all, there is no formula for the perfect apology. Every person and every situation is different and your apologies will likely come to reflect that. However, if you focus on healing the relationship and take ownership for your mistakes, you're off to a great start. Timing seems to be key in terms of delivery, and while you can only predict the "right time" with limited certainty, I think remaining aware, open-minded, and calm is key to figuring out the best time to reach out. And remember, if you need someone to consult, that's OK! Friends, loved ones, and mental health professionals are always there to offer you an ear and some outside perspective.