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How to Apologize

In this article I will be sharing about how to apologize. You may be surprised by my point of view. I've got a lot more to say than a bunch of fluff about owning up to mistakes and saying "I'm Sorry" ... although these are important parts of a great apology. Please read on and let me know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, or WEquil.App.

First things first...what is an apology?

An apology is “A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.” That's the standard textbook definition anyway (I'll share mine at the end 😉) . To apologize we need to regret something we did and acknowledge it to the harmed person(s). Simply saying you are "Sorry" is not enough.

How can I give a great apology?

Great question!

First, I think we need to articulate to the offended person's perspective.

This is extremely challenging. I know ... because I've been doing it a lot lately it seems. But when I do this it has the immediate effect of reducing tensions and allowing the other person to feel safe and open up to me.

For example, I recently started a dog sitting business at our new apartment complex. Sumay offered me some unsolicited advice about how to set it up and I made a snarky remark about how I knew more about it than she did and would ask if I wanted her opinion.

That was a very rude thing to say, and I immediately apologized and thanked her for sharing ... after all she was only trying to be helpful!

We've all been there. We know what we need to do. But often times the hardest part is our willingness to do it.

Here is a strategy I have found that helps a ton...I remember that "I'm Sorry" does not mean "I'm a bad person". Moreover, when you give an apology it does not have to mean you did something “wrong”! You don't need to believe you are a "failure" as the textbook definition seems to imply.

A lot of arguments and even wars break out because of miscommunication. So when you do give an apology, remember that it doesn't mean you're a bad person, it means you are acknowledging that you have done something that contributed to hurting the other person's feelings.

Let me give another example...

Let's say there are two people cooking green beans in the kitchen, Billy and Sally. Sally is washing the green beans. After she is done she asks Billy to grab a pan for her. As Billy is putting the pan on the stove he accidentally knocks the bowl of green beans off the counter and spills it all over the floor. Sally is now angry and feels he has done something wrong. Billy is defiant and feels he was just trying to be helpful and that Sally should not have had the green beans in the way in the first place.

Billy ... understandably so .. does not want to believe he "failed". This is clearly getting in the way of him apologizing.

This is why it is so important to know that an apology is simply a regretful acknowledgment that you had a role in causing the other person's hurt feelings. An apology does NOT mean that you are a bad person. This is the first thing to know when giving an apology, because it will keep you from getting defensive and therefore make it easier and more sincere.

Another important part of an apology is your tone! You need to accept in yourself that what you are saying is true! Otherwise your apology may come across as sarcastic or insincere. This will most likely just infuriate the other person and make the situation worse.

The key ingredient in giving a meaningful apology is to say exactly what you think you might have done to hurt their feelings. This shows them that you understand why they're upset and often disarms them. This also allows you both to talk through your feelings and concerns without feeling super emotionally charged.

How to grow from an apology?

Another great question!

One shouldn't think that if someone apologizes that they won’t ever make the same mistake again. Change is hard. We are all human and it can be hard to change our actions especially if it is a habit.

It's better to see yourself on a journey of continuous improvement rather than in a state of "Right" or "Wrong". Everything we do can be improved. So we should view an apology as an opportunity to improve!

Here are some magic words to help shift the discussion from "Right vs Wrong" to "Continuous Improvement"! “Please tell me if I do it again.”

What I love about this phrase, “Please tell me if I do it again” is that it implies that you might make the same mistake more than once, but gives the offended person permission to remind you!

This phrase is like magic because it really helps to improve behavior. Usually when we hurt someone's feeling they are someone we care about. That means we almost certainly did not TRY to hurt their feelings. So we probably did it without even knowing they would take offense. The fact that we were unaware means that we may need help seeing the behavior in the future...and who better than the person we offended!!

By saying “Please tell me if I do it again” you help to make the offended person a co-collaborator in improving your relationship! That allows them to accept your apology without having the dangerous expectation that you will never make the same mistake twice because you are giving them permission to point it out right away!

An Improved Definition for an Apology

To be honest, I don't like the textbook definition of an apology. Here is why.

The textbook definition says that in order for me to "apologize" I need to regret my "offense or failure". The word "failure" often gets in the way of an apology and as I've expressed in this article I don't see any benefit to making people feel like failures in order to acknowledge their role in hurting someone else's feelings.

Technically the "or" in the definition between "offense or failure" makes the word "failure" optional ... but that's confusing just like this sentence. One needs to have studied set theory to really appreciate the power of "and" vs "or" and lets me honest...most ten year olds have not studied set theory.

So I propose the following definition for an "Apology".

Textbook Definition: “A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.”

Proposed Definition: “A regretful acknowledgment of having offended someone, with the intent to improve in the future.”

I like this definition because we must recognize that we offended someone ... because they said so ... but at the same time we don't need to think of ourselves as failures. The added "intent to improve in the future" dramatically improves an apology because who cares about an apology without intent to improve?

I guess my key point here is that an apology is an opportunity to learn and grow ourselves. We all have room for improvement. Just because we are flawed doesn't mean we are failures, and seeing an apology in this way can really help to improve relationships. At least...that has been my experience.


Thank you for reading my article about how to apologize. Giving a truly sincere and meaningful apology can be very hard sometimes, and requires a lot of confidence. The best way to get better is to just keep trying. You’d be surprised how many relationships you can save just by giving a true apology!

If you read my article...please let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or WEquil.App.


Aila McPhail

Co-Founder of WEquil.School

1 Comment

Nov 19, 2022

This is really interesting and enlightening. Thanks for sharing!

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