How To Give A Good Apology

“I’m sorry, okay?!” does not work.
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Even though it can initially be annoying as hell, a good apology is one of the best gifts to give.

When I do couples counselling, I get to see how people give and receive apologies. I get to see the kinds of apologies that don’t work and sadly, do further damage. I also get to see apologies that work and therefore, create more closeness and bonding. It’s moments like these when I feel like I’m witnessing love really happen.

I help people to learn how to give and receive good apologies and to experience the healing benefits of them. When we receive a good apology, we know it. It’s like we have a built-in system in the brain, heart, and gut that recognizes a good apology. We can feel it repairing the wound inside. We feel acknowledged and relieved.

First, I’d like to share with you some examples of apologies that don’t work.

Apologies that don’t work:

“I’m sorry, okay?!” (often said in an abrupt and frustrated tone)
“I’m sorry but…”
“I’m sorry if you feel…”
“I hope you don’t feel…”
“It wasn’t my intention to…”
“If you hadn’t ___________ then I wouldn’t have____________”
“Look, I said I was sorry!”
“I’m sorry but that’s your perception”

Also, not saying anything at all and expecting it to be a given for the person to know you’re sorry is not an apology.

These non-apologies dressed up as apologies do nothing to repair a hurt or a rupture. It can even make it worse. Even though it can be hard at first, knowing how to effectively apologize is one of the most important skills we can develop in life. It has a huge effect on our overall quality of life.

This is what a good apology looks like and sounds like:

It’s heartfelt, sincere, and deep
It’s given with eye contact that is soft and body language that is open
The words are said in a soft/gentle, slow way
It’s obvious through this body language, tone of voice, and the words used that the person feels remorse and feels the hurt the other person feels.

“I’m sorry” is offered along with the following 5 steps:

1. Acknowledgement of the mistake (in a specific way)
2. Acceptance of responsibility (no blame or defensiveness)
3. Expression of remorse and empathy
4. Offer of compensation (that is meaningful to the receiver)
5. Communication to do one’s best not to do it again in the future

(Lewis, Jarrett et al)

Sometimes, it helps to write your apology in a letter or card. Then, sit and read it aloud to the one you’ve hurt. Because it’s all about connection, you can ask “How does that land for you?” .

With gentle persistence, help the receiver to let it in.

A good apology offers much more than “I’m sorry.”

It’s a process with multiple steps involved. As difficult as that is, it’s key to work on accepting that. Sometimes, depending on the mistake and the damage done, offering a good apology needs to be done more than once. Try not to resist that.

Apologizing may seem like a heavy process that would be best avoided. However, through courage, dedication, and practice, we feel how powerful and rewarding giving a good apology is. The benefits can be felt immediately, by both the giver and receiver. Your relationship is richer and stronger for it. And that’s excellent motivation to give good apologies freely when need be going forward.


Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson

Kim Boivin is CEO and full-time psychotherapist at Positive Change Counselling in Vancouver, BC. She has a Masters in Counselling Psychology and a BA in Cultural Anthropology. Since her own first therapy session at the age of 13, she has been passionately engaged with emotional, mental, and relationship health.

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