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7 Elements of a Sincere Apology (And How to Offer One)

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According to a British survey, 84% of respondents consider the following a “proper apology.” 

“I sincerely apologize.” 

In that same survey, only 51% considered the phrase “I can only apologize” to be a proper apology—a huge difference of 33%. 

Both have the words “I” and “apologize,” so why are these two phrases perceived differently? We’ll get back to that—stick around! 

The 2 Main Types of Apologies

First, let’s talk about different types of apologies. That’s right. Not all apologies are valued the same. 

The two main types of apologies are sincere and instrumental. You’ve seen both in action. 

A sincere apology, simply put, is when the offender recognizes and acknowledges their fault. Imagine your friend calling two hours after you are supposed to leave together on a trip to say they were up late and overslept. They feel terrible about making you worry when they don’t answer your calls.

An instrumental apology is offered when the offender tries to avoid punishment or rejection. That’s the one you get from a 6-year-old who came barreling around the corner in the grocery store and nearly took you out at the knees. Or from the coworker carrying a laundry basket full of rubber chickens who bumped into you. 

Why is it Hard to Apologize?

We’ve all had that moment when we’ve said or done something we regret but still have to work up the nerve to say, “I’m sorry,” right? Come to find out research identifies several barriers to offering a sincere apology. 

  • Lack of concern for the person or the relationship. As we think over our offense, it’s possible we could decide it wasn’t enough to warrant an apology or that staying in the other person’s good books doesn’t matter to us. 
  • A perceived threat to your self-image. Most people have a sense that they are good, moral people. Acknowledging our imperfections causes conflict with our perception of self. We may decide that fessing up isn’t worth the internal struggle that a sincere apology can require.
  • A belief that the apology won’t make a difference. If we think saying “I’m sorry” won’t improve the relationship or won’t be accepted, we may decide it’s not worth saying anything at all. 

Why Apologize?

Before we talk about how to apologize, let’s take a moment to discuss why we apologize. 

One common perception is that if we apologize, both the giver and receiver will feel better. Interestingly, a study shows that betrayed people put a higher value on an apology they imagined receiving than one they actually received. 

So if an apology won’t always make the participants feel better, why say sorry? One TED video suggests the purpose of an apology is to attempt to understand the person you wronged and try to repair the damage caused. 

That damage could range from replacing a physical item to repairing a breach of trust. 

In the end, making an effort to apologize comes down to showing the other person you value your relationship with them and that you’re willing to work to maintain it. 

4 Ways to NOT Apologize

Non-apologies, or pseudo-apologies, can come in several forms: 

  • The Half-Hearted Generic will often include the words “I guess” and lack details, making the person wonder if you even know why you’re apologizing. “I guess I should apologize for what I said.” 
  • The Yes, But [Excuse] comes with reasons why the person is not to blame for the situation. “I’m sorry I didn’t call, but my phone died, and it took me forever to find an outlet, and then a squirrel chewed through my charging cable.” 
  • The Counter-attack avoids taking responsibility by shifting the blame, usually towards the other person. “I’m sorry I took so long in the shower, but every time you go first, you take all the hot water.”
  • The I’m Sorry If also shifts the blame away from the person and moves it squarely onto the other person’s emotions. “I’m sorry if what I said offended you,” or “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.” 

How to Apologize Sincerely

Now let’s talk about how to ensure an apology is genuine and effective to understand the person we wronged and make amends for our actions. 

Use the magic words

No, in this case, we’re not talking about “please” and “thank you” (though those are very important words!). You can use the most powerful words, “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Using “I” statements when apologizing will help avoid shifting blame or making excuses. 

Example: “I’m sorry. Allow me to apologize.” 

Acknowledge what you did wrong.

This is a time for specificity. Make it clear to the other person that you understand what you did to hurt them. In addition to showing you why this was offensive, it also makes it clear you are aware of what action to avoid to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

Example: “I know you probably worried when I didn’t call you back last night after telling you I would.” 

Express regret for your actions

Showing remorse and acknowledging how your actions affected the other person is

an opportunity to show your sincerity. 

Example: “I feel bad about how I snapped at you in front of everyone. I’m sure it was embarrassing for you, mainly because I now know I was wrong, and you didn’t deserve that criticism.” 

Take responsibility for your actions 

Research shows this is the most important of all the elements of an apology. This makes it clear you understand how your role in the situation hurt the other person, and you recognize you were wrong. 

This helps validate feelings of betrayal, hurt, or anger the other person felt and is the most convincing form of apology. It’s tempting to justify your actions with an excuse, but resist! Simply acknowledging your actions without trying to justify them will offer a more impactful apology.

Example: “I’m sorry I was late for the presentation. I should have been there early to get ready. When I realized I was going to be late, I should have let you know.” 

Declare your intention to change future behavior

Sometimes known as repentance, declaring the intention to change and following through is indicative that you learned from the experience. It allows for greater trust to develop in your relationship moving forward. 

Example: “I shouldn’t have taken your car without your permission. From now on, I’ll ask you before I plan to drive it.” 

Offer to make things right

In some cases, making restitution is simple and straightforward. Other offenses, especially those involving a breach of trust or integrity, can take more time and require proving yourself worthy of their trust.

Example: “I feel bad about breaking your TV screen when I had the VR headset on. I want to pay for a replacement.” 

Request forgiveness

After offering an apology, requesting forgiveness gives the other person an opportunity to engage in the process with you and restore the relationship. It’s valuable to realize that the other person isn’t required to offer forgiveness. And just like it can take time to gather the courage to face someone and apologize, it can take time for them to process their emotions and offer forgiveness.

Example: “I hope you will be able to forgive me. I know it may take some time, but I value our friendship and hope we can work through this.” 

Bonus tip: Do you have to apologize in person?

Apologizing face-to-face isn’t strictly necessary. An apology is best offered in the most common form of communication between the people involved. If you are used to texting a friend in another state and find you owe them an apology, a sincere apology through text is acceptable. 

But if you often see a friend in person and choose to text them an apology, it may affect how sincerely the apology is perceived. And remember all those cues from an in-person interaction you lose through technology! 

How to Apologize in Action 

Imagine your car breaks down the day before you need to get to an appointment. Your friend, who lives just down the road, offers to lend you their car. On the way home, it starts to rain, the car hydroplanes, and before you know it, you’ve hit the side view mirror against the barrier and broken it.

How not to apologize

“I’m sorry, but it was so rainy, and the car started hydroplaning. Next thing I know, I’m on the side of the road, and the mirror is broken. You can’t be mad at me for bad weather, right? I feel bad, but maybe your insurance will cover it?” 

A sincere apology 

“I want to apologize. I was driving faster than I should have in the rain and lost control of the car. I broke your side view mirror and feel terrible for damaging your car when you were so generous to lend it to me. I want you to know I fully intend to pay for the repairs, and I will be much more careful about driving in the rain from now on. I imagine this is a lot to process, and I hope you’ll be able to forgive me.” 

Why You Should Not Over Apologize

Do you know someone who, if you point out he just apologized three times in the same sentence, and the next words out of his mouth are, “I know, I’m sorry!”

Have you ever apologized for… 

  • Accidentally bumping into someone in a crowded room? 
  • Circumstances out of your control? 
  • Starting to speak at the same time as someone else? 
  • An honest mistake over a trivial matter? 
  • Asking a question? 
  • Your feelings? 

Research shows the negative consequences of over-apologizing. It reduces the effectiveness of an apology, affects others’ sense of respect for you, and can even lower your self-esteem.

If you fall into the “over-apology” camp: 

First: Welcome. You’re not alone.

Second: Take time to notice when and why you tend to apologize. 

Third: Learn ways to respond without apologizing unnecessarily. For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry I’m three minutes late,” try saying, “Thanks for your patience. Should we get started?” 

Factors That Affect Perception Of Apologies

We all know someone who goes through their day with an “I’m sorry” tacked to the end of every sentence, as though they feel compelled to apologize for breathing air or taking up space in the universe. 

On the other hand, there’s that person you know who gets a confused look on their face even when you point out a situation brewing.

As it turns out, researchers are discovering various factors that affect how we perceive and react to offending or being offended. 


Researchers did a series of studies examining how gender affects the perception of offenses and the need for apologies.

Here’s what happened: 

In the first study, participants were asked to record 1) all offenses they committed or experienced and 2) if an apology was offered. 

  • Women reported apologizing for far more than men, but they also reported committing more offenses than male participants did. 
  • The proportion of apologies for offenses was the same between men and women. 

In the second study, participants were asked to rate imaginary and recalled offenses.

  • Men’s thresholds for what constituted an offense worthy of an apology were higher than women’s.

Gender can be a factor in our tendency to not only feel the need to apologize but also whether or not we register an offense as worthy of an apology. 

Perception of power

Gender research sheds interesting light on another study that found that factors like status and gender affect the effectiveness of an apology. The most effective apologies come from less expected sources, particularly males and managers. 

Attachment style 

Attachment theory proposes that our development as children affects our ability for normal social and emotional relationships as adults. The outcomes of another series of studies suggest that people with high attachment avoidance tend to offer apologies that are less comprehensive and more defensive. 

I’m Sorry, What’s the Takeaway?

So, back to our original question: What’s the difference between “I sincerely apologize” and “I can only apologize”? 

With the first one, in just a few words, the person acknowledges they did something wrong and then takes responsibility for it. 

The second phrase, as similar as it may seem, is saying something more like, “I may or may not be responsible for something I can tell you’re upset about, so I guess I’ll say sorry, even though it might not fix our problem.” 

Phew! What a difference! 

And, of course, when you apologize, others will notice what you say and what body language you’re using.

Check out the Ultimate Guide to Body Language to learn more about making gestures match your intentions!

Crack The Code on Facial Expressions

The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.

In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.

Don’t spend another day living in the dark.

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