“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Is there any more worthless a platitude? When you’re in a relationship, especially for any significant period of time, you are going to have to say sorry for something. But how to apologize effectively? There are different grades of apology: There’s the “Oh, sorry,” apology you cast off when you just want someone off your back. There’s the blunt “I’m sorry, okay?” when you sort of mean it (but not really). We all do those — and there’s a time and place for it — but being on a receiving end of a non-apology apology sucks. When you really, truly need to apologize for something you’ve done, something that has wronged or insulted or hurt your partner, you need to understand what a true apology consists of.
So what makes for a good apology? You have to mean it, sure. But there’s a narrative structure that a good apology should follow. Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, is an expert in the art of negotiation as well as rebuilding trust. He’s spent years researching the ideal apology, and he’s broken it down the perfect apology into six components:
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Acknowledgement of responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer of repair
- Request for forgiveness
Understand these six steps and you’ll be able to craft an apology that really, truly means something. It sounds a little complex, but Lewicki explains that, when followed properly, these six steps are not only very simple, but also quite effective. We asked Lewicki to break down each one and explain how and why they work so well.
The 6 Elements of a Good Apology
1. Expression of Regret
To start, you simply must tell the other person that you’re sorry for what you did. It’s important that you get this part right, because it will set the tone for everything that follows. Tone is crucial. If you sound insincere, sarcastic, or at all annoyed, then whatever else you have to say will ring hollow.
“What this does from the speaker’s point of view is try to express how sorry they are for the offense,” Lewicki explains. “This is where tone can make a difference. You can say, ‘I’m really genuinely sorry,’ and communicate some emotionality in that. Or you can be sarcastic and say, ‘I’m sorry, did I offend you?’ and totally diminish the content of your apology.”
2. Explanation of What Went Wrong
Here is where you have a chance to explain your thinking and let your spouse or partner know that there was a reason behind the mistake that you made. This can go a long way toward letting your spouse see the intention behind your actions and perhaps change their perspective on why they’re upset. If they think you did something wrong because you’re thoughtless or don’t care, but then hear your actual reasoning behind your error, it can soften them up a lot.
“It’s trying to help the other party understand how this happened in a way where they can understand that it was a mistake or an error,” says Lewicki. “It’s an effort to put them in your shoes to get a sense of how and why it happened.”
3. Acknowledgement of Responsibility
This is a hard one for some people to do, because it requires them to step out from behind their own ego and defensiveness and simply fall on the sword. If you did something wrong, you just have to own it. This is key, as it can signal to your partner that you’re aware of your actions and that you accept your role in it. A non-apology or shifting of the blame will only make things worse here. “This is saying, ‘I was wrong when I did that and I accept responsibility for my actions,’ ” says Lewicki. “As opposed to saying something like, ‘the Devil made me do it,’ or some other effort to put the blame on somebody else for what happened.”
4. Declaration of Repentance
Here’s where sincerity really comes into play. You have to step up and promise that, whatever happened will never happen again. It’s a promise to not repeat your actions.
“In the second study we did that turned out to be the most important element. It’s saying, ‘I regret this happened. I’ve learned my lesson,’” says Lewicki. “But if you make that promise, then you have to not do it again. Kids are notorious for this. They promise they won’t do X and then 10 minutes later they do it again. If you do that, [subsequent apologies] lose credibility.”
5. Offer of Repair
So you’ve said that you’re sorry, but what are you going to do to make it right? How will you move forward from here? Letting your spouse know that you’re not just sorry in the moment, but that you’ve established a plan to go forward and fix things in the long term will make the apology go down a lot easier.
“If there were actual damages you can offer to pay for or repair the damages, or if there were [emotional] damages, then a dozen roses, or a box of chocolates might do the work,” says Lewicki. “I’m serious about that. Token offers of repentance that are above and beyond just the words are quite often quite symbolic.”
6. Request for Forgiveness
Interestingly, Lewicki’s research marked this as the least important element in the apology. Provided you nailed the other five, this one should just be a formality.
“Here’s where the severity of the violation comes in,” says Lewicki. “I mean, if you promised to bring home a pizza for dinner and forgot, that’s different than if the spouse finds that you’ve been seeing another woman. But if the violation is correctable and the violator shows real intent in not repeating, then it’s much more likely to rebuild fundamental trust, but it’s going to take time. It doesn’t spring back immediately.”