The Right Way to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Most people say “I’m sorry” many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, “No problem.”

But when “I’m sorry” are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.

I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions.

I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.

After learning that a neighbor who had assaulted me verbally was furious about an oversight I had not known I committed, I wrote a letter in hopes of defusing the hostility. Without offering any excuses, I apologized for my lapse in etiquette and respect. I said I was not asking for or expecting forgiveness, merely that I hoped we could have a civil, if not friendly, relationship going forward, then delivered the letter with a jar of my homemade jam.

Expecting nothing in return, I was greatly relieved when my doorbell rang and the neighbor thanked me warmly for what I had said and done. My relief was palpable. I felt as if I’d not only discarded an enemy but made a new friend, which is indeed how it played out in the days that followed.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary