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The Art of Apologizing: Experts Explain How to Say "I'm Sorry" and Why These Words Are So Important for Your Relationship

These step-by-step tips will help make apologizing that much easier.

Contributing Writer
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Photography by: Austin Gros

No one really enjoys admitting that they're wrong, which is probably why apologizing is hard for so many of us. But even though "I'm sorry" can be some of the most difficult words to utter, they're among the most important. In fact, apologies are essential to the health of your relationship as they allow you to take responsibility for something you did wrong and make a change for the better, explains Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., psychologist, director of My Dating & Relationship School and author of Dating from the Inside Out. "An apology can allow both people to cleanse out the anger and hurt and to start again, and can restore the trust and reestablish a sense of empathy that the other person cares that they hurt you and would like to avoid doing this again," she says.

 

Since the art of the apology, albeit incredibly important, is something most of need help mastering, we asked relationship experts to break down the basics. Here, learn how to say you're sorry in a way that's both painless and effective.

 

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Find a good time to talk.

This may be about a private or sensitive topic, so Dr. Sherman recommends asking the person you need to apologize to when would be a good time for them to talk. "They can choose a time when they feel ready to speak and a place they are comfortable and feel safe, and then it should go better," she says. Place is also an important thing to consider, as a busy or loud room with other people can be distracting and take away from how genuine you seem.

 

Say you're sorry and express regret.

Verbally speaking those two words—"I'm sorry"—to the person you've hurt or offended is important. This lets him or her know that you're taking responsibility for your actions. "Let them know you never intended to make them feel that way and you never wanted them to feel pain," says Dr. Sherman. "This shows that you care more about the relationship than you do about the content of the disagreement or being right."

 

Explain why you did or said what upset them.

While it might come off as defensive, you're entitled to explain yourself. "By doing so, the other person can put themselves in your shoes and perhaps understand how you made your mistake," says Aimee Bernstein, psychotherapist, mindfulness-in-action teacher, and author of Stress Less, Achieve More. "Get to the heart of the matter quickly, rather than telling winding stories, and identify your assumptions."

 

Ask for forgiveness.

This part is important, because it shows an awareness that the other person has a choice about what to do about your relationship and it lets them know you hope you can start over, explains Dr. Sherman. "This gives them a sense of control over the situation and a sense of participation in the healing process and your ongoing relationship," she explains.

 

Related: It's Very Common to Have These 5 Fights During the First 6 Months of Marriage

 

Make your apology personal.

"Simply sending a text or email apology not only dehumanizes your words, but it also lacks emotional connection and meaning," explains Tanya Otterstein-Liehs, empowering movement and mindfulness coach. "The person reading your text or email can't hear the sincerity in your voice and may actually misread or misunderstand your message, leading to a miscommunication. Perhaps they feel you're not being sincere enough."

 

Ask what else you can do to make things right.

"Sometimes the apologizer just wants to get everything off their chest so they feel exonerated but maybe the other party also wants to get complete and to have their feelings heard," says Dr. Sherman. "Be a safe, non-defensive partner and respect their feelings and empathize with them so that you can both move on with greater compassion and understanding."

 

Know sometimes people and outcomes are out of your control.

If the person you are apologizing to doesn't seem receptive to your apology, they might need time. However, if he or she seems unwilling to engage with you as you apologize, know that this is out of your control, says Ariane Machin, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective. "You might want to think about if this relationship is worth salvaging or if this relationship is necessary or healthy," she adds.