The Art of a Sincere Apology – Harvard Health Blog


If you’ve been stuck at home with one or more family members over the past year, then you’ve probably strained each other’s nerves once in a while. When you’re under a lot of pressure, it’s not uncommon to say something unpleasant, or even to angrily attack someone you care about. We all make reckless mistakes from time to time, like forgetting a promise or breaking a promise.

Not sure if you should apologize?

Even if you don’t think what you said or did was so bad, or you thought the other person was really wrong, it’s still important to apologize when you hurt or anger someone. “To maintain or re-establish bonds with others, you have to let go of concerns about right and wrong and instead try to understand the other person’s experience,” says Dr. Ronald Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. This ability is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, which underlies healthy and fruitful relationships of all kinds.

How to apologize sincerely

For an apology to be effective, it must be genuine. A successful apology confirms that the other person felt offended and acknowledges responsibility (you accept that your actions caused the other person’s pain). You want to make it clear that you truly feel sorry and care for the person who has been harmed, and promise compensation, including by taking steps to avoid similar mishaps in the future like in the examples below.

According to late psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Lazar, apology expert and former counselor and dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, a good apology has four components:

  • cough. Take responsibility for the violation, whether it is physical or psychological harm, and make sure your behavior is unacceptable. Avoid using vague or elusive language, or phrasing the apology in a way that minimizes the offense or asking if the victim has really been hurt.
  • Explain what happened. The challenge here is to explain how the infraction happened without an excuse. In fact, sometimes the best strategy is to say there is no excuse.
  • Express remorse. If you regret the mistake or feel ashamed or offended, say so: this is all part of expressing your sincere regret.
  • Offer to compensate. For example, if you damage someone’s property, repair or replace it. When the abuse hurts someone’s feelings, acknowledge the pain and promise to try to be more sensitive in the future.

Offer an apology from the heart

The words that you choose for apology matter. Here are some examples of good and bad apologies.

Effective formulation Why does it work
“I’m sorry I lost my temper last night. I was under a lot of pressure at work, but this is no excuse for my behavior. I love you and I will try hard not to let go of my frustrations on you.” He takes responsibility, explains why the error occurred, but does not justify it, expresses remorse and concern, and promises reparation.
“I forgot. I apologize for this error. It shouldn’t have happened. What can I do to avoid this problem in the future?” He takes responsibility, describes the mistake, makes the person feel cared for, and starts a conversation about how to fix the mistake.
Wrong wording Why is it not working
“I apologize for what happened.” The language is ambiguous. No crime has been identified.
“I made mistakes.” The use of the passive voice avoids taking responsibility.
“Well, I apologize. I didn’t know that this was such a sensitive issue for you.” Reluctantly, it appears, again blaming the person who offended him (for “sensitivity”).


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