How to Apologize Effectively

As couples counselors, apologizing is a topic that we are highly familiar with. Apologizing is a crucial communication tool in healthy relationships. We often work with couples on how to apologize effectively. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a half-hearted apology that just doesn’t feel genuine. It takes a genuine apology to help us move forward in our relationships.

We recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast episode, “How to Optimize Your Apology” and were excited to hear about the research that has been done surrounding effective apologies. Cultural sociologist, Karen Cerulo, partnered with fellow sociologist, Janet Ruane, to study the effectiveness of an apology. They looked at the format and content of the apology to determine which apologies are most effective. Here’s what they found is the most successful apologies:

  1. Pay special attention to how you start and end your apology. What you say first and last in an apology is what people remember. The first thing you say is a “primer.” Show remorse at the very start of the conversation and intentionally end with how sorry you are.
  2. Avoid talking about yourself. The most successful apology focuses on the person that was hurt, not on the apologizer. Steer clear of talking about yourself or justifying your actions. The research shows that why you did it is less important than your regret or remorse. People don’t want context, they want to know you are sorry.
  3. Apologize for what you did. Cerulo points to many apologies where people say sorry for a misunderstanding. This does not show ownership of a mistake. Apologize for what you did, not what someone else thought. Highlight what you did to offend someone. (Read: “I’m sorry you thought I was being rude.” Compared to: “I’m sorry that I was rude to you.”)
  4. Apologize sooner rather than later. You should make an apology close to when the offense occurs. We know that waiting to apologize tends to build frustration in the hurt partner. Owning up to your mistake earlier rather than later allows for repair attempts to begin.
  5. If possible, commit to doing better*. Expressing a desire to do better next time shows true remorse. If you are unsure of how to do so, ask. Start with, “How can I do better next time?” This shows that not only are you remorseful, but you also want to grow and learn from the mistake.

*If you offer a solution or make a promise to do better, you must follow through. If you do not follow through, your apology becomes empty words and is ultimately ineffective.

As a general rule, exhibiting authentic remorse is the most important part of an apology. Let your partner know that you are sorry and you mean it. We are all going to mess up in our relationships- its par for the course. If conflict is inevitable, then so are apologies. Remember: be quick to apologize, keep the focus on who you’ve hurt, and be intentional about sharing your remorse.

If you or you and your partner would like to work on apologizing and other communication skills, please schedule with one of our counselors below:

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.