Every person will end up in a situation in which they should know how to apologize in their lives, but there is a difference between saying sorry and offering a proper apology. A proper apology should address the specific details of a problem or disagreement, and how you plan to change. This knowledge is useful when offering an apology in private, as a business, or when offering a public apology.
Consider The Five Ws and One H
When making an apology, the six words you need to keep in mind are who, what, where, when, why, and how. A vague apology can feel dismissive and infuriate the person you want to communicate your feelings to even further.
These details should always be at the forefront of your mind when deciding how to apologize. The United States has an official help page for those looking to offer an apology because it is considered a vital career skill. You may notice that their advice is very identical to Harvard’s list of apology essentials. That’s because offering a detailed apology is a vital skill in business and life.
When you choose to apologize, you should make it clear who you are apologizing to. One of the most common mistakes is offering an apology to a room or a group of people, instead of engaging the injured party directly.
It's also wrong to apologize to the people around the victim for causing a disturbance, without apologizing to the wounded party directly. Apologizing for making a scene helps to appease those in your vicinity, and addresses any inconvenience they've been put through. It is not the same as offering an apology to the injured party though and should be done separately.
Whether you’re offering a personal or public apology, consider who the grieving party is. Make sure to say who you are apologizing to, and speak directly to them, or engage with the closest representative they will allow.
You need to be clear what it is you are apologizing for. If you are unclear what mistakes you’ve committed, an apology will sound hollow. To prove you have a sincere desire to change and avoid making the same mistake in the future, knowing what you did wrong is a necessity.
When apologizing, make it clear that you understand what the inappropriate action you took was. Explain your error, and how you intend to address it. Tell them how you feel about your past transgression, and explain what led you to the mistake, or how you will avoid making a similar decision in the future.
When an apology is required, the wounded party often doubts your sincerity, and may look for vague wording or lies in your apology. The best way to prove yourself is to show candor, by making your apology as detailed as possible to eliminate all possible misinterpretations.
Wars have been fought for less. A famous story in Japan tells that Ieyasu Tokugawa received a gold bell from a former enemy as an apology for their past disputes. An apology was etched on to the bell in the form of a poem, but the flowery language was vague, and Ieyasu interpreted it as a threat instead.
In the end, the apology was refused, and the two went to war. Just like in that story, an apology can be easily misunderstood or dismissed if you don't clearly state what the heart of your dispute was, and make it clear that you know what your error was.
Where you offer your apology is one of the details that can change the most depending on whether you’re offering a personal, formal, or public apology. When deciding how to apologize, remember that addressing a sensitive topic in the wrong location can be one of the largest barriers to effectively communicating your regret.
In most personal disputes, an apology can be offered in a wide variety of locations. You can choose to apologize at home, in a public park or locale, or anywhere with an air of familiarity.
If you need to offer a formal apology due to a corporate issue or a dispute at work, however, where you apologize at becomes much more important. An official apology offered at the site of an accident or the location where a dispute took place can show the weight you put on the incident and make an apology more impactful.
This same logic can be applied to personal apologies. If you are apologizing for a personal mistake, like angering a loved one, apologizing in a location the two of you treasure can act as a reminder of how much value you place in your relationship.
On the other hand, there are many locations to avoid when apologizing. Addressing a sensitive issue, such as an accident that cost a loved one, in front of a large crowd of onlookers can be seen as extremely insensitive. This also holds true for personal apologies about private disputes, especially when it may pull onlookers or other close friends into the dispute.
Don't choose a location that will exacerbate the problem. If you must address the public, choosing a location related to the dispute can be helpful. If it is a personal issue, however, apologizing in front of their friends or loved ones can feel like an insult, or may escalate an issue so that a new apology is required to address that affront as well.
One of the most difficult details to decide upon when apologizing is choosing the correct time for your apology. The common notion is that you should apologize as soon as you realize you’ve offended someone, but it is sometimes possible for waiting to offer an apology to be the right decision.
Reiterating the importance of the five Ws and one H, if you don't know What you are apologizing for, you should not offer a hasty apology. If you apologize at the moment, you may also choose the wrong location for it. The important thing is to stop and consider how you can most effectively show your sincerity so that your apology isn't wasted words.
You can’t always choose the right time for an apology. Medical professionals such as doctors and nurses are sometimes required to offer apologies during their work. Their apologies often have to do with the death of an individual, a mistake in their practice, or their insensitivity during an appointment.
The death of a victim’s loved one can be an especially sensitive issue. Many medical professionals believe that offering an apology while the person is still grieving can make it seem less sincere, or it may be ignored.
Unfortunately, many doctors fear the repercussions of a victim who is offended by an apology, and never get around to apologizing. A poorly timed apology is often a better option than never apologizing for a mistake, though. Sometimes a quick apology is a right answer, but an apology long after an incident may avoid opening fresh wounds and can still convey your feelings.
Tell the person you are apologizing to why you have chosen to apologize. Not every disagreement is due to a misunderstanding. When you explain why you are apologizing, you can illustrate your line of thinking. Tell them what changed your mind about an issue, or why you didn’t understand your mistake before and how you’ve since come to understand it.
Explaining why you are apologizing allows the wounded party to understand your thought process. This can help you to avoid future misunderstandings as well. Many disputes happen because one party is wrong but unaware of it, while the other believes the mistake is intentional. When you explain your thought process, this can sometimes be avoided in future conversations.
The final reason telling them why you are apologizing is important, is because it helps to personalize the apology. People who learn how to apologize often begin to standardize their apologies.
They can begin to sound like a copy-paste. Why you are apologizing is unique to each incident, however, and addressing it can bring out unique details that make the apology seem more sincere.
The tone you take when apologizing has a large influence on how it is received. That’s why you should consider your audience when deciding how to apologize.
When apologizing to a personal acquaintance or loved one, using formal language and a stiff medium like a written letter can be the wrong decision. If you have to apologize to a co-worker or in an official capacity, however, poor writing and overly familiar language can be just as appropriate.
Consider your relationship to the offended party before you start your apology. One thing few people consider is their position relative to the victims. If you are their boss, a parent, or someone with authority over their lives, they may feel forced to accept your apology no matter how well delivered it is.
If you are in a position of authority, take extra steps to show them that you are sincere. It’s more difficult to accept an apology from a guardian or boss, so strive to make a better apology than usual if a hierarchy is in play in your relationship.
A good apology should be detail oriented. Before you apologize, think carefully about who, where, what, when, why, and how. You may apologize differently if you intend to address a single person or loved one, or a group or coworker. The location and timing of your apology should change significantly based on these details. The details are a necessary part of any good apology.