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How to Apologize: The 6 Steps of a Great Apology

Radiance Talley | Jun 14, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Radiance Talley | Jun 14, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

With any close or long-term relationship, hurt feelings are bound to arise, regardless of what our intentions may be. So, it’s important to learn how to apologize in a meaningful and effective way so our friendships can strengthen and heal

RELATED: My Path to Forgiveness and Emotional Healing

In their book, “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies,” co-authors Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy researched the best ways to tell someone you’re sorry. They identified the following six steps to a great apology:

1. Say, “I’m Sorry”

At a talk in New York in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, told us to “Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart,” asking us to be “the source of consolation to every sad one.” 

Saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” may seem obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, people may try to express regret without explicitly acknowledging that they committed an offense and stating that their behavior was unacceptable.

Similarly, avoid using qualifiers in your apology like “I’m sorry if” or “I’m sorry, but” that avoid taking any responsibility, question whether hurt feelings actually occurred, and place blame on the victim for feeling hurt. Many of us know how irritating it is for someone to say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you” or, worse, “I’m sorry that you took it that way.” Clearly, someone is hurt if you need to apologize to them. When apologies are that defensive, you might as well not have given one at all. As Abdu’l-Baha said:

You must begin to pray and repent for all that you have done which is wrong and you must implore and ask for help and assistance that you may become better than yesterday so that you may continue to make progress.

2. Specifically Say What You Are Apologizing For

Avoid using passive and vague language that doesn’t admit to any wrongdoings. Specifically state what you are apologizing for so the person knows that you heard them and that their feelings matter. 

3. Take Ownership of the Hurt Feelings That You Caused

Take responsibility for the harm that you caused and show your friend that you understand why what you did was wrong. Beyond apologies, taking accountability for our actions is a practice that we need to do daily for our spiritual development. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, instructed us to: 

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.

4. Avoid Making Excuses

Remember that the impact of your actions matters more than your intentions. You can explain where you’re coming from and how you made the mistake without excusing it. In fact, the best thing to say might be, “There is no excuse for my behavior.” 

I know it takes vulnerability to apologize and that can be uncomfortable. It helps to keep in mind that healing someone’s heart is more important than protecting your ego.

5. Say Why You Won’t Make the Same Mistake Again

Assure the person that the offense won’t happen again. Express remorse and state what steps you are taking to better yourself so they can learn to trust you again.

6. Make Reparations

Baha’u’llah wrote:

Arise, and make amends for that which escaped thee.

Try to repair the damage you have done. For example, if you damaged someone’s possessions or property, fix or replace it. If you hurt their feelings, think of how you can make it up to them and promise to try to be more sensitive to their feelings going forward.

“These six steps are relevant for adults, for children, for corporations, for institutions, for governments,” author Marjorie Ingall said in an interview with NPR. “And six-and-a-half is ’listen.’ People want to be heard, and don’t jump over them. Let the person that you hurt have their say.”

Ultimately, making an effective apology involves more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It requires that we express remorse, take responsibility for the harm that we caused, and make amends. By following these steps, we can rebuild trust, foster stronger relationships, and create a culture of empathy and accountability. Remember, the power of a meaningful apology lies in its sincerity and the willingness to listen and change — a vital skill that can lead to healing and growth for everyone involved.

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