How to Apologize: A Simple Formula to Say I’m Sorry

How to Apologize: A Simple Formula to Say I’m Sorry

Several months ago, in the middle of a stressful revamp of my website, my husband was offering his opinion on which direction we should go. He is a major supporter of my site, and for the record, there’s no way I could run and maintain this site without him. But in that moment, I didn’t want to listen to his opinion. I felt overwhelmed with all the necessary changes. I felt like I was losing control. So in true human fashion, I dug my heels in. At his next suggestion, I rolled my eyes and snipped, “Whose website is it anyway? Last time I checked, it was Dr. Allison Answers.” (Cue absolute silence and immediate regret.)


The minute the words were out of my mouth, I knew I messed up. My comment was ungrateful and snide, and I could tell Matt was hurt. It was not a shining moment for me. (Sidenote: psychologists are real people and royally screw up like the rest of humans. Take this as proof.)


Have you had a moment like this? A moment where you flat out screwed up? A moment where you reacted, lashed out, or hurt someone you care about? The reality about humans is that we hurt people. We don’t usually do it on purpose, but it’s a reality about being imperfect beings. We make mistakes.



While we can’t take back what we’ve already said or done, we can apologize, acknowledging the impact of our actions and taking ownership for the way we’ve impacted someone else.


Apologies are both an art and a science, and I could write an entire book on how to apologize. However, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to hold off on the book. Instead, I’m going to provide you with a simple yet effective formula for how to apologize. Let’s jump in!


Step one: Acknowledge the ACTION.


This step is simple, and in most cases, can be done in one sentence. It goes something like this, “I’m sorry I lost my temper.” Or “I’m sorry I’ve put you on the backburner,” or in my case, “I’m sorry for saying it is my website and not yours.” This step is literally about naming the offense. This helps the other person know that you realize where and how you screwed up. And yes, starting with “I’m sorry” or some variation of that sentiment is important. Start by acknowledging the action that was hurtful, careless, mean, or insensitive.


Step two: Acknowledge the IMPACT.


This step involves using your empathy muscles and imaging what your action felt like to the other person. Perhaps you failed to recognize the extra efforts your partner has been doing lately. After acknowledging the action, “I’m sorry for not acknowledging how hard you’ve been working,” acknowledge the impact. “I imagine you feel ignored and unappreciated. I bet it feels like I don’t notice or care.” Acknowledging the impact involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and recognizing their emotions. You may not be certain how they were impacted, but taking the time to think about it shows a level of care and attention that is often missing from apologies. If empathy is tough for you or you aren’t the best with reading emotion, use this emotion list for reference.


Step 3: Acknowledge the INTENTION.


This step is about gently and succinctly explaining your intention in the action that prompted the apology. Note: under no circumstances should this step ever come before either of the other two steps. That completely changes the tone of an apology. Acknowledging the intention needs to come after the other two steps, or else you sound like you’re justifying your actions. Also, please do not use the word, “but.” This negates everything you said before it. “I know I hurt your feelings, but…” “I know it was rude, but…” “I know I shouldn’t have done that, but…” Don’t use that word; it won’t work in your favor, I promise.


Step three should be short, simple, and no longer than one or two sentences. Did you inadvertently shut down a coworker’s idea in a meeting? If so, acknowledge the action, the impact, and then you can acknowledge that you felt pressed for time and were trying to hurry the meeting along. Things can go very wrong in step three, so tread lightly and keep it simple.



A quick recap on how to apologize: (1) Acknowledge the action, (2) acknowledge the impact, and (3) acknowledge the intention.


Ideally, an apology has all three of these components, no less than the first two at least. Acknowledge the action, the impact, and then the intention. This formula is rooted in empathy, honesty, and vulnerability, three important concepts when it comes to relationships.


Putting it all together


Let’s revisit the example from earlier. You know, my shining moment of love and appreciation for my husband’s hard work on my website? Using the formula above, here’s how I chose to apologize:


I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it was my site. You work so hard. That was rude and thoughtless. And it’s totally dismissive of how hard you work on the site. I’m sorry. I feel overwhelmed with all we have to do, and I feel like I’m in over my head.


Look back at that apology, and you will see each of the three steps represented, in order. Now, imagine how different that apology would have felt if I had all three steps but in a different order. I’m sorry. I’m just feeling so overwhelmed and in over my head.   I know it was rude; I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Nope. That’s focusing on me and my intention, not the impact it had on Matt.


What about each of those steps in the right order, only with the word “but?” I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it was my site. You work so hard. That was rude and thoughtless, but I feel overwhelmed with all we have to do. I feel like I’m in over my head. Again, nope. The word “but” is completely dismissive of the impact my action had on Matt.


This three-step formula is simple but complex. It goes against every bone in our human body to defend and protect ourselves, making the apology about us and not them. But that’s not what an apology is for. An apology is an opportunity to acknowledge your action and the way it impacted someone. Acknowledging the intent offers a change for increased understanding, but only when we do this step thoughtfully.


We can’t get a redo after we’ve hurt someone. Thankfully, we usually have an opportunity to apologize, and that is the next best thing. So don’t leave it up to chance; follow this simple formula and tweak as needed. I think you’ll notice a difference.


What’s the hardest thing when you apologize and what step do you want to work on the most?  Know someone that could benefit from this formula?  Share this article with them!

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