How To Apologize: 4 Steps To A Better Apology
The 4 vital steps to how to say I’m sorry, from the teachings of Maimonides.
Judaism teaches us that Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are times of forgiveness. We’re taught that these days of heartfelt regret and prayer can wipe away all the misdemeanors that we’ve committed against G-d, but not those which occurred between man and man. No amount of spirituality, prayer, fasting or tears can ‘fix’ anything we’ve done to hurt another person, nor will G-d wipe our slate clean for us (and really, would it be fair to expect Him to?). To hope for a second chance from G-d, we need to first straighten our own record books with friends, relatives and colleagues.
Knowing how to apologize means more than just saying I’m sorry. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes that in order to to atone for our sins before G-d, we need to include:
• Verbal Confession
• Resolve for the future
Since an apology is an expression of atonement between man and man, a good apology needs to include these same elements – plus one more that isn’t needed when ‘apologizing’ to G-d:
• Ask for forgiveness
1. Verbal Confession:
The first step in how to apologize is to articulate exactly what you did wrong. Be specific. If the apology is too vague, the wronged party won’t be sure that you recognize what you did wrong. And it is super-annoying to hear someone say “I’m sorry for anything I said that upset you”. Nor is “I’m sorry for everything” any good either.
Try “I’m sorry that I snapped at you and told you to go away” or “I’m sorry that I broke your favorite mug“.
When you describe what you did wrong, don’t forget to take responsibility for it. I’ve heard more than my share of apologies that use the passive voice (politicians like this kind of apology, I’ve noticed). Passive apologies are the kind that go
“Those words should not have been said” or “It was wrong to have broken your mug“.
Describing what you did wrong and taking responsibility for it is the vital first step to how to say I’m sorry in a meaningful way.
The second step in how to apologize is to express remorse for your wrongdoing. In this step, you tell the other person that you regret your actions by detailing why your behavior was wrong.
Eg. “I’m sorry I broke your favorite mug. It reminded you of a special time in your life. It was careless of me not to hold it more securely, and I wasn’t showing enough concern for you and your possessions when I handled it.“
This might be the hardest part of the apology, but it’s also the part that has the biggest impact on both the apologize-er and the apologize-ee. By articulating why your behavior was wrong, you validate the other person’s feelings of hurt or anger towards you, and show them that you care about how they feel.
Expressing remorse and describing why your behavior was wrong helps the apologize-er too. Verbalizing the negative effects of our actions is a very good motivational force for us to change them.
It’s not always easy to come up with the right words for expressing remorse, and there’s a risk that you could slide into self-justification (a big no-no for successful apologies), so do take time to think about this part first. Think about what effect your actions had on the other person’s feelings, or how your relationship has changed because of them, or (to really do it thoroughly) which negative characteristic within you was reinforced by your behavior. If you’re stuck, try starting with ‘What I did was wrong because…”
Note: Whatever you do, avoid giving a ‘but’ apology, the kind that go “I’m sorry I broke your mug but you left it in the way“. A ‘but’ apology shifts the blame onto someone else, or onto a set of circumstances beyond our control. These are not apologies: they are excuses.
3. Resolve for the future:
The best apology in the world not be accepted if the person you are apologizing to thinks that you will repeat your mistakes. To know how to apologize successfully, you need to tell your listener not just that you will avoid hurting them in the future, but how you will avoid it. For example
“Next time, I will treat your special possessions with more respect. I will use both hands and concentrate on carrying it carefully“.
Telling your listener your resolve for the future is more than just a nice formula; it’s also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. One fourth-grade teacher who taught her students a formula to use when apologizing explained that your resolve for the future should use positive language (eg “In the future I will speak to you calmly” instead of “In the future, I won’t be mean”), since it reinforces your desire to change.
These are her sentence stems for a better apology:
1. I’m sorry for…
2. This is wrong because…
3. In the future I will…
4. Will you forgive me?
I’m sorry for cutting you in line. This is wrong because you were here first, and it was selfish of me. In the future I will go to the back of the line. Will you forgive me?
4. Ask for forgiveness:
Every apology should end with a request for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness places control in the other person’s hands, since he/she doesn’t have to forgive you just because you’ve apologized. Maimonides reflects this when he writes that if the other person does not accept your apology at first, you should apologize again twice more. (After that, the other person bears the burden of forgiveness without you having to apologize again.)
We’d all like to think that if we give a good apology, everything will go back to normal again. That’s not always possible, but there is life after apology.