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How To Offer The Right Apology For Big, Medium And Even Tiny Mistakes

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man and woman cuddling in a restaurant, taken through the glass

We all have relationships with other human beings. And with relationships of any kind, friction is virtually unavoidable.

We misunderstand. We make mistakes. We misspeak. We get "hangry." We react without thinking and we’re just not nice anymore.

Well-spoken apologies ease social friction and maintain goodwill within relationships.

But one way of apologizing doesn't work for all situations.

There are different types of apologies, and it's important to know which type to use and when.

RELATED: How To Apologize Effectively & With Sincerity

The components of a good apology

An effective, basic apology contains three necessary components. These are:

  • A statement of what you’re sorry about
  • A statement that you’re sorry
  • A remedy or resolution for the mishap

This very simple apology, though, is not enough for a sustained relationship. An apology for a sustained relationship includes a statement of the impact on the other person.

In turn, a sustained relationship apology is not enough for a loving relationship.

Apologies within loving relationships need to include a statement of the impact your mistake had on you.

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Different ways to say 'I'm sorry'

Quick, simple apologies

The simplest is the apology offered to a “fleeting” relationship that says not much more than “Oops. I’m sorry this happened. Let’s fix it.”

To the delivery driver, it might be as quick as “I dropped the pen. Sorry. Let me pick that up.”

This is an easy apology offered to a relative stranger and one that’s difficult to get wrong. Nothing more is needed. Anything added — such as “I’m so embarrassed that I dropped your pen.” — would be weird.

Sustained apologies

The second type of apology for a “sustained” relationship is the apology for an offense more significant than a dropped pen. It goes like this: “I screwed up and I’m sorry. I had this kind of impact on you. I know how to remedy this.”

This apology is fuller than the “simple” apology and more substantial because it includes the recognition that your mistake had an impact on another.

Loving apologies

The third, richest apology is the apology that says, “I screwed up and I’m sorry. I know I hurt you in this way. I am ashamed that I did that. This won’t happen again.”

This is the fullest kind of apology that acknowledges contrition and indicates your commitment to the relationship.

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How 'sustained' and 'loving' apologies differ

Let's say you turn a work report in late. Your boss or coworker is furious. You know that you screwed up and that you need to apologize.

You might try something like this: “I know that I was late turning this report in and I regret not finishing on time. Because my report was late, you couldn’t finish your work. I delayed you and put you in a bad position. Going forward, I’ll ask for help earlier in the process so that my reports are delivered on time.”

This apology includes four elements: a description of the error, recognition and regret that your mistake negatively impacted your workplace colleague, and a resolution, either how to avoid this mistake going forward or a suggestion of how to fix any problem your mistake caused.

It’s unlikely that your boss or coworker cares that you feel bad about messing up — they just want a solution for the problem you caused.

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What to avoid when apologizing

If you don’t know what impact your failure had on another, do not make assumptions. Instead, say so and ask.

It’s alright to say, “All I can see is that you’re angry. Beyond your anger right now, how has my mistake affected you?”

It’s much better to know the impact so that you can be clear and specific in your apology.

“I’m sorry you’re mad” isn’t much of an apology at all. Better: “I understand you’re angry because your work was delayed.”

If you don’t know how to remedy your mistake, do not make up answers. Instead, say so and ask. It’s alright to say, “I don’t see any way to fix my mistake. What do you see?”

Asking for a potential solution when you see none makes it clear that you’re committed to putting things right. Not asking for or offering a resolution will leave your partner unsatisfied and your apology falling on deaf ears.

However you apologize, never fall back on whatever good explanation you have for what happened.

“My report was late because my dog ate my homework.” Your apology now sounds like an excuse and you’ve lost credibility.

Accepting responsibility for your mistakes is the only means of maintaining your credibility and reputation within this relationship.

RELATED: Never Forget: Your Mistakes Are Proof You're Trying

How 'loving' apologies differ

And then there are the apologies offered to those people who are significant to you. Whether the offense is large or small, your apology should be careful and sincere.

A strong, effective apology here will be more painstaking with the addition of a final component: not only the impact you had on the other but also and importantly the impact your error had on you.

To state the impact your error had on another, you have to put yourself into the other’s position, to imagine the world from their point of view. This requires empathy — your recognition of another’s discomfort or suffering.

You’ll need to discount your point of view and instead take on the other’s point of view as your central focus when you apologize.

The impact your error had on you is equally as important in offering strong apologies to those you love and who love you. By stating your reaction to your mistake, you’re letting the recipient of the apology know that you don’t want to be the bull crashing through the china shop of your relationship.

It carries with it a promise that you will be more careful of your relationship in the future.

What to avoid when apologizing within a “loving” relationship.

The guidelines remain the same as for a “sustained” relationship apology.

Do not make assumptions. Ask if you don’t know what impact your failure had on others.

Ask if you don’t know how to address your mistake. Don’t blame circumstances or others.

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Apologies offered to relative strangers are easy. There’s no ego involved.

Apologies to people who are significant in your life can be more difficult — they involve putting your ego aside, not making excuses, and owning up to your failure.

Apologies to people you love and who love you can be as easy or as difficult as you make them. Trust that you’re apologizing to people who love you.

You may be ashamed of yourself at the moment and fearful of their reaction. They may be tremendously disappointed in you at the moment. 

Yet, unless you’ve done something truly unforgivable, trust that they will hear your apology. And remember that your apology may not be immediately accepted — sometimes we all need time to reflect and forgive.

RELATED: 10 Little Communication Tricks That'll Lead To A Much Deeper Love

Susan Kulakowski, MBA/MS, is a writer with a focus on making personal development courses available for children and their families. More information is available via The Relationship Mastery Institute.

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