Illustration of apologetic eyes
March 17, 2020
3 mins read

Emotional Intelligence 101: Heartfelt apologies

Emotional Intelligence 101

“Sorry” has become one of the catchphrases of our time. We hear it daily in polite exchanges, the news—even in K-pop songs.

But sometimes “sorry” suddenly gains mass, like particles in a Higgs field, causing it to lodge itself in our throats. Many people (myself included) have lost friends over a petty argument or a boorish, salty roast that went too far—when an apology could have resolved the situation.

I’ve learned that apologizing is an act of courage and that I’d rather lose an argument than a friend. But the way an apology is worded can determine if the situation will be resolved...or roll onto more treacherous ground. Some apologies work; others sputter and collapse.

Here are 5 strategies to help you word a sincere, effective apology:

1. First, think empathetically and with a cool head

Before you launch into your apology, know the specific actions you’re apologizing for. Imagine yourself as the person who feels offended. Objectively consider the circumstances where you might've messed up—and what the person needs from you to forgive you.

Although you may think it’s not a big deal, remember that it's not about you—it’s about the person who feels offended by you.

Hollow: Ugh! Why should I apologize? It wasn’t my fault.

Heartfelt: Why do they feel that way? Where did I mess up?

2. Apologize with precision, and if it’s broke, fix it

“I’m sorry” should not stand alone; take responsibility for the specific action. Doing so will let the person know that you have thought about your actions.

And sometimes, a mere apology just won’t cut it. Depending on your situation, you may need to go beyond admitting that you’re wrong—and offer to compensate, tangibly or otherwise.

Scenario: You lost the textbook your friend lent you.

Hollow: “Man, I’m so sorry.”

Heartfelt: “Hey. I’m sorry for losing the book you lent me. Could I buy you a new one?”

3. Be genuine in your attitude and tone

The last thing any person to whom you owe an apology would like to hear is a forced, perfunctory, smug apology.

Scenario: You embarrassed your friend in front of their crush.

Hollow: (eye roll) “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Are you happy now?”

Heartfelt: (looking them in the eye) “I’m sorry for embarrassing you back there.”

4. Focus the apology on your action, not their reaction...

In her book Why Won’t You Apologize?, Dr. Harriet Lerner explains that blame-reversing apologies can fail at defusing tension (or worse, even further heighten tension).

Avoid zoning in on the other person’s reaction to your actions—they may feel that you’re making assumptions about them and thinking, for example, that they’re overreacting and being too uptight.

Scenario: You posted an unflattering picture of your friend on Instagram.

Hollow: “Oh, that picture. Honestly, it looks fine. I had no idea that it’s such a big deal for you. I’ll take it down. Can you forgive me now?”

Heartfelt: “I’m sorry about uploading that picture. It was thoughtless of me. I’ll remove it right now.”

5. …but without getting defensive

In No One Understands You and What to Do About It, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson points out some of the most lethal paths through the minefield of apologizing:

“I had a good reason...”

“I was trying to…”

“I didn’t mean to…”

The person you’ve offended most likely does not want to hear you defending yourself, so don’t. Get your point across without taking too much of their time.

Also, “but”s and “if”s should not be present—they detract from your apology’s sincerity and sound more like non-apologies.

Scenario: You spilled coffee all over your friend’s worksheets.

Hollow: “I didn’t mean to bump my hand into the coffee. I was trying to grab the pencil box, but I wouldn’t have done that if...”

Heartfelt: “I’m sorry I spilled coffee over your worksheets. I’ll clean it up right now.”

Sometimes, even after trying these strategies, you'll still find yourself exiled from that person’s life with your apologies unaccepted.

That is out of your control. Apologizing doesn’t entitle you to redemption or forgiveness. Take that in stride and own up to your mistakes, and next time, be mindful of your words and actions.

Although apologizing, at the outset, can be challenging, be brave. Step up.

Remember that line from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline? “‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave.’”