Apologies are hard. Even when we know we are wrong, it is hard to admit it and put ourselves at the mercy of others. Our own sense of shame or guilt makes it difficult to apologize without becoming defensive — it is natural to respond to feelings of vulnerability with defensiveness. But effective and sincere apologies are necessary to maintain the health of our relationships. Many of us deliver bumbling or half-hearted apologies, not because we don’t want to say sorry but because we don’t know how to do it well.
A good apology performs several functions: it takes responsibility, it expresses regret, and it offers a repair. Any time we apologize to someone we have hurt, we should strive to deliver all three of these components. A simple framework for delivering an apology that protects and repairs your relationships is to use a “Why-Because-And” model.
Start by making eye contact and explaining why you are sorry. Acknowledge your shortcomings without qualifications. For example, “I am sorry I didn’t attend the grand opening of your business…” or “I am sorry I was late handing in my term paper…”. It is important you frame your apology in terms that actively take responsibility rather than making it sound as if something just happened while you were a bystander.
Show the other person that you recognize the problem in what has happened. Explain the because behind your regret, that you understand and have remorse for the way they have been affected. You might say something like”….because I know how hard you’ve worked and how much you wanted to show me your business,” or “because I know that you have many papers to grade and my lateness adds to your burden.” Make sure you are communicating empathy for whatever hurt you have caused.
The last component of an effective apology is offering either a repair or a solution for the future. Make sure not to over-promise in a moment of high emotion, but be sure to offer some indication of how the same mistake will be avoided in the future. For example, “…and I would love to stop by next week to see what you’ve done,” or “….and I will be sure to get the next paper to you on time.” Sometimes there is no way to make up for what has happened. In that case you would want to fully convey that you will make every effort to come through in the future.
The “Why-Because-And” method of apologizing acknowledges what went wrong, takes responsibility without qualification, and then offers a repair. It does not imply that the wronged party’s response is somehow exaggerated, it does not make excuses, and it does not over promise the future. While it can feel difficult to admit fault, it is an important part of maintaining authentically healthy relationships.