Ace the skill of apologizing

The skill of apologizing … let’s dig it.

We hear it so often that the words lose their meaning: “I’m sorry!” Some people grew up in households where the words were rarely spoken because it meant taking blame. For others, it became an instinct that led to a habit of apologizing for things they were not responsible for. And for many, it usually marks the end of a conflict. It may or may not entail a degree of accountability or remorse. At times, it may be an empty phrase. Regardless of the context, it is rare that these two short words constitute a proper apology. The good news is that apologizing is a skill–one that can be learned with practice.

Here are five steps to sharpen the skill of apologizing:

Actively Listen

In a previous article, we outlined the skill of active listening. To summarize, use your OARS: open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summations. Indicate to the other person through your responses that you are truly listening to their side rather than waiting to speak and share your side. When conflict occurs, remember that you are both trying to solve an issue that is impacting the relationship and are on the same team. Being on the same team requires effective communication, and two people talking at each other does not work. You cannot consider an apology if you do not understand your part in the issue at hand.

Accountable for Actions

This step is absolutely critical. Consider whether your desire to rush the “I’m sorry” is a tool you’ve used to quickly resolve past conflicts. Acknowledging your shortcomings can be uncomfortable, but this discomfort is where growth happens. Take ownership of what you did or said without minimizing or denying it. After all, it cannot be taken back once said or done, so focus on moving forward.

Acknowledge Impact

As difficult as it feels to admit when you have fallen short, advocating for your own feelings or perspective can only make things worse. Be sure that you are centering the other person’s feelings and how your actions impacted them. It is easy to justify your reactions because you know why you did or said something. While you can disclose your intentions, know that even the most well-meaning intentions do not negate the impact. For example, someone may try to be helpful in a way that makes you feel patronized. If you feel that way, it does not change that the other person hurt your feelings, even if they meant well.

Ask, If Needed

If you do not understand why someone is upset or what you did wrong, you can ask the other person. This does not guarantee that you will get an explanation, nor should another person be responsible for your self-awareness. However, conflicts are an opportunity to improve communication and demonstrate the importance of the relationship. Asking shows that you are interested in understanding their point of view and want to know how you can do better next time. It also ensures that you are not trying to read the other person’s mind–a superpower no one has.

Act Differently

The real apology comes after the verbal one: behavior change. It is said the best apology is changed behavior, but an apology means nothing without it. After all, if a friend showed up to social events an hour late but said “I’m sorry” each time, how long would you accept this behavior? At some point, the words lose their meaning. If you truly understand the impact your actions have had on others, you would do something differently so you no longer harm the people you care about.

Avoid Black-or-White Mentality

One of the biggest barriers to apologizing is your attitudes and beliefs about them. Some people see apologizing as admitting they are wrong or showing weakness. Some people feel that every conflict is a fight to be won, and apologies are for losers. Right-or-wrong and win-or-lose are classic black-and-white thinking; an either-or fallacy that is only illogical but unhelpful. When you get caught up in trying to be right or win the argument, you do so at the expense of the relationship with the other person. There is maturity in realizing most things in life are not so simple, and no one is keeping score. Despite the tips above, apologizing is rarely easy. It is a skill like any other, one that must be honed with practice over time. Our clinicians are available to help with relational and communication skill-building.

The skill of apologizing effectively will get you further than you think. Stay on top of our blog for additional mental health insights.

2121 South Oneida St.
Denver, CO 80224
(720) 863-6100

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

Note: We do not accept any of the following: Bright Health, Medicare, or TriCare.
Note: Our providers do not prescribe or manage medication. For help with medication, please visit our friends at