When ‘I’m Sorry’ Isn’t Enough: How to Apologize Properly

This formula will help your apologies mean so much more.
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This formula will help your apologies mean so much more.
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Art Credit: Taylor McCutchan

“Look, I said I’m sorry. Can we just drop it now?” “I’m sorry, OK? I said I’m sorry.” “All right, fine. I’m sorry. Do you feel better now?”

No, no, and no. The issue isn’t resolved just because you said sorry. No, it’s not OK. And no, actually, I don’t feel better.

When did we get this idea that two simple words had the power to absolve all offenses and heal all wounds? When did we get the idea that we were allowed to let our tongues flap loosely, make selfish decisions, and then simply shut the lid on the whole ordeal with these two little words? We may have been trained to believe that these words did the trick, but make no mistake—there is no magic in them. More often than not, these words do not absolve, they do not heal, and they do not lead to reconciliation and restored relationships.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks this, because a couple months ago, when I wrote an innocuous little post on how I taught my fourth grade class how to apologize “properly,”  I was met with millions of readers and hundreds of comments. You see enforcing this method of apology transformed my classroom: Students began to relish in the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, share intent to change, and restore friendships. The most common sentiment from my readers was that this wasn’t just a lesson for kids—it was necessary for adults! Maybe it’s because we all grew up being forced to say "sorry" too, and while it worked well enough in elementary school, it lost some of its magic once our problems grew from breaking crayons to breaking hearts. Or less dramatic things, but you know.

Here is the formula I taught my students:

01. I’m sorry for...

02. This is wrong because...

03. In the future I will...

04. Will you forgive me?

I’m sorry for cutting you in line. This is wrong because you were here first, and it was selfish of me. In the future I will go to the back of the line. Will you forgive me?

Sure, it seems like quite a mouthful for such a small matter, but here’s the important thing: that kid stopped cutting in line. For a perpetual cutter and general troublemaker, four sentences is not a very big investment. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

That’s all good and well for elementary school, but what are we adults to do? Do you really expect me to look my husband in the eye and use these formal, awkward, and uncomfortable sentence stems? I mean, really, sentence stems?

Sentence stems are not evil, I promise. But that aside, I don't insist that adults use them. As cliché as it sounds, it’s really about getting to the heart of the matter.

01. I’m sorry for.../I apologize for.../I feel really bad about...

Start with any of these, or just say whatever it takes to get across the point that you regret something you did. Be specific.

02. This was wrong because.../It made you feel.../I wish I hadn’t because...

Address the consequences that resulted, including the other person’s emotions. The more specific, the better. This will show that you can appreciate the unhappy emotions you caused, and sometimes that is more meaningful than anything else you can say. If you’re introspective (and humble) enough, touch on how it fed some undesirable character trait of your own: pride, selfishness, laziness. It’s optional, but a little extra credit couldn’t hurt.

03. Next time.../In the future, I will...

State a clear plan to change. What’s the point of apologizing if you don’t intend to fight your natural inclination the next time a similar situation crops up?

04. Will you forgive me?

These words are humbling, but powerful. I can’t think of a better way to say it than to ask it plain and simple—with more hope than expectation.

Also consider what you are saying outside of your words: your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Nothing infuriates like an insincere apology, and I think many would agree that no apology is better than a fake one.

You’d think that after teaching, thinking, and writing about it, I’d be an expert at apologizing. But I’m not. I can be such a prideful, self-absorbed person, and I will be the first to admit that I am awful at apologizing. I’m awkward and I can’t make eye contact, and I mumble and break all my own rules.

And so I, too, find myself standing before my husband, readying myself to apologize. This means I am fighting the urge to flee and cold-shoulder it and do that huffy thing where I just stew about making up reasons why everything is really his fault and not mine. He waits, slightly miffed, wondering why I am making him stand there while I glare at the floor. Because you see, this is not a normal thing for us. Me apologizing all sincerely and everything.

I'm so flustered I can’t even think of how to say anything, so because they are the only words that come to mind, I start working my way through these childish sentence stems: “I’m sorry for…” If childish is an adjective for silly or weak, the results are anything but.

It worked. It worked on him—he visibly relaxed, his eyes softened, and he even eked out a little half-smile. And perhaps more importantly, it worked on me. My heart finally admitted to itself that I actually made a poor and selfish choice, and some part of my brain is rewired ever-so-slightly in a better direction for the future.

Was it easy? No. Do I think everyone should use sentence stems? No. You are probably a more articulate, poised, and elegant person than me and won’t need them. But if you happen to fumble with words when it’s your turn to be humble, then you might just want to keep this in mind. When it comes to resolving conflict, there’s a difference between dropping the issue and experiencing true reconciliation. Sometimes, it might just start with something as simple as choosing a better way to say "I'm sorry."