Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word: 5 Ways to Make a Meaningful Apology

I did it again today. Acted grumpy with my husband for leaving the bathroom messy. I made a snarky comment instead of explaining my feelings, and then I needed to apologize. Of course, being a Brit, you’d probably expect me to be good at saying “Sorry.” Tongue-in-cheek commentators say that apologizing for someone else’s mistake is how we know we’re British!

Often, we don’t want to apologize because we don’t want to appear weak or admit we’ve been wrong, or we’re just plain angry. But unresolved conflicts can fester if they’re not properly addressed. Sweeping things under the carpet and pretending we can carry on as though nothing has happened builds resentment. Ultimately, refusing to say, “I’m sorry,” can destroy relationships.

Apologizing is important to God. When talking about anger, Jesus was very clear that there was no point trying to approach God if we weren’t in good relationship with others: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).

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So, how can we apologize and make amends in a truly meaningful way?

First, we need to understand what makes a true apology. It’s said that the only genuine apology is one that doesn’t have anything added. Saying, “I’m sorry, but… [insert excuse here],” or “I’m sorry you were upset…” isn’t really a true apology. Trying to deflect responsibility shows you haven’t truly understood how your words or actions were out of line.

A genuine apology means saying that you know you did the wrong thing, and you take full responsibility for your actions. Being explicit in your apology (“I’m sorry I shouted at you”), shows the person you’ve hurt that you know exactly what you did wrong. Use phrases that show you clearly understand what you did wrong and you’re genuinely sorry.

It also means showing real contrition and perhaps an undertaking not to do the same again. An apology might also involve doing something concrete to make amends.

Here are five suggestions for making your apology more meaningful.

1. Apologize face-to-face

Often, making a face-to-face apology is the best approach. Choose a good moment so neither of you is feeling rushed. Consider your body language. Making eye contact can show you’re serious. Smiling (or worse, smirking!) won’t help your apology feel genuine. A physical gesture, such as a touch on the shoulder or a hug may also be helpful.

2. Write a letter or card

A written apology shows you’re taking the matter seriously. Choose a thoughtful card or beautiful stationery and keep it neat. A scruffy note on paper torn from a notebook really won’t cut it. Keep it simple, as you would in a verbal apology, and stick to the main points – you’re sorry for what you did wrong and you’ll try not to do it again. You might consider an indicator on the outside of the envelope (e.g. ”Sorry”) if you’re worried they might reject it unopened.

3. Give a small gift

Sometimes a small, thoughtful gift is a good way to sweeten your apology. Traditionally, a bouquet of flowers is a good option, but you know the person best. So, choose something that’s the best fit for them. Maybe a special breakfast with their favorite coffee and pastries. Or surprise them with that book they’ve been wanting to read. Be thoughtful too – a box of chocolates isn’t helpful if they’re watching their weight. Make it something truly personal to them.

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4. Do something practical

Willingness to spend time making amends is another way to show how sorry you are. Baking a batch of cookies, tackling the pile of laundry, or creating a handmade card are all good ways to demonstrate your regret. It might make even more of an impact if you try something you don’t excel at. You hate yard chores, but you’ll do them anyway! Or make amends by getting that broken ornament repaired.

5. Have a little fun

Decorate your home with sticky notes bearing the word ”sorry,” leave a message in a bottle on the front porch, or email a cute animal GIF. If you have a pet, hang a ”sorry” card around its neck and present it to the other person. Some people will have their heart melted by a humorous apology, but some might take even more offense, so consider the situation carefully before using a lighter tone. On the whole, this is best for small misdemeanors, which might be laughed at further down the line.

Saying “sorry” is never easy. In fact, if apologizing comes too easily, perhaps it shows a lack of insight into how deeply our actions have hurt those we love. But true contrition helps us rebuild a bridge with the person we’ve wronged and establish a firm foundation on which to build a strong and abiding relationship.

Originally published October 7, 2019.