The reasons to apologise may be many, but there are only two words that can express it best: “I am sorry”.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The reasons to apologise may be many, but there are only two words that can express it best: “I am sorry”. Keep it short and simple. If you go on too long you’re likely to offer explanations that are really excuses, or criticisms that undo the sincerity of your apology

Apology Faux Pas

Owning up to our mistakes is probably the best way to end things on a positive note. On the other hand, a badly delivered apology can make matters worse, not better

“ I ’ m sorry”, are two of the most powerful words you may ever utter in your life. They’re also often the hardest to say – and when you do say them, it’s way too easy to get them all wrong.

The secret to a good apology is a topic US relationship expert Dr Harriet Lerner knows all about. For her best-selling new book, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, she studied the fine art of saying “I’m sorry”, for two decades.

“A good apology makes the hurt party feel safe and soothed in the relationship and restores connection and trust,” says Dr Lerner. “In contrast, an absent or bad apology can put a crack in the very foundation of a relationship or even end it.”

Here, she shares her tips on how to make your apology sincere instead of a “sorry, not sorry” disaster.

Keep it short and simple

If you go on too long you’re likely to offer explanations that are really excuses, or criticisms that undo the sincerity of your apology.

Never use the words “if” or “but”

A good apology takes clear and direct responsibility for what we have said or done (or not said or done) without any manner of obfuscations or excuses. For instance, if you say, “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday, but I was overwhelmed with work,” this sneaky little add-on will undo the sincerity. It doesn’t matter if what you said after the “but” is true – it will make your apology seem false.

Focus on your own behaviour, not the other person’s response

One very common way you can ruin an apology is to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that what I said/did made you upset”. There is no accountability here. You’re implying the other person’s reaction or over-sensitivity is the problem. For example, “I’m sorry you felt badly when I corrected your stories at the party” is not an apology. Try, “I’m sorry I corrected your stories at the party. I was wrong and I won’t do it again.”

Request forgiveness, don’t demand it

Telling someone “You have to forgive me” can make the hurt party feel rushed and wronged all over again. The words “Do you forgive me?” or “Please forgive me” are a valued ritual in certain close relationships, but don’t view your apology as an automatic ticket to forgiveness and redemption. This is not about you and your need for reassurance – a true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive.

Assure the injured party that you won’t do it again

If you don’t change the behaviour you’re sorry for, your apology is just empty words. Ditto if you fail to make reparation when one is due. For example, if you accidentally spill red wine on your friend’s white carpet, offering to pay for the cleaning bill is an important part of your apology.

Don’t bring up their crime sheet

“I apologise for yelling and now I’d like you to think about how rude you’ve been” is not an apology – even if you secretly believe that you are only 17 per cent to blame. Save your criticisms and complaints for later, when they can be a focus of attention rather than a defence strategy.

Avoid over-apologising

If you’ve forgotten to return your neighbour’s Tupperware, don’t apologise numerous times as if you’ve run over her kitten; that will irritate your friend, disrupt the normal flow of communication and make the other person have to stop and reassure you (“No, it’s fine, don’t worry”) rather than continuing to talk about what she wants to talk about. Remember too, that in the workplace over-apologising will undermine your authority.

Apologise in person

I would say that’s the general rule. For simple mistakes or insensitivities with a friend, it may be enough to text, “I was a jerk, I’m so sorry”. But not all of our insensitivities are quite that simple.

Be prepared that one apology may not be enough

A serious hurt or betrayal may require many conversations over time where we listen without defensiveness to what the hurt party wants to tell us. More than anything, he or she will want to know we really “get it”, that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that we will carry some of the pain, and that we will do our best to make sure there is no repeat performance. No apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain.