Jan. 30, 2013 at 5:49 PM ET
Be sincere and simple
Whether it's a serious offense or an easily reparable boo-boo, saying sorry is key to maintaining good relationships with a loved ones, friends and co-workers.
"Saying sorry signals to the other party that you value the relationship more than the need to be right," says John Kador, author of Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges and Restoring Trust. One catch: "You need to be sincere," says Lauren M. Bloom, author of "The Art of the Apology.""Your tone of voice needs to be authentic and you need to use simple language.. I'm sorry' and 'I apologize' are usually the best words to use."
"One of the simple requirements of an apology is complete acceptance of responsibility. Otherwise it's not an apology at all," says Kador. To avoid minimizing your offense, Kador recommends steering clear of the words "but" (as in, "I'm sorry, but you started it") and "if" (as in, "I'm sorry if you were offended") and also avoid a passive voice ("I'm sorry that mistakes were made"). To effectively take responsibility, Kador says, "Name the conduct that was offensive, apologize and promise not to do it again."
When offering an apology, don’t look at the ground, at your watch or out the window. "Instead, look the other person in the eye and take a deep breath before you start," recommends Bloom. "Try not to slouch or fidget. The goal is to be relaxed and attentive, clearly focusing on the other person as you talk together."
Write it out
Sometimes a face-to-face apology isn’t feasible, or you can’t bring yourself to do it—especially if it may lead to awkward confrontation. Is it ok to write one instead? "Always," says Kador, adding that a written letter or note card is appropriate, whereas a text or email can lead to further conflict. "A written note gives the victim time to consider the apology, whereas with email, they get it and respond immediately. You want them to sit on it for a bit. Email and text can get you into an immediate debate on the issue, which is not what you want."
If "I'm sorry" doesn't seem like enough, find a creative way to express remorse, says Bloom. "The trick is to do something that takes real time and effort rather than shoving a gift at someone instead of apologizing, which can seem more like a bribe than serious effort." A playlist of apologetic or meaningful songs, a hand-painted card or a giant cake with a frosting apology are all sweet gestures, but for maximum effectiveness deliver a verbal apology before giving the creative gift, says Bloom.
Follow up with action
Show your sincerity by changing your behavior. "The most powerful part of the apology, apart from signaling your desire to repair the relationship, is to show your commitment to be on good behavior," says Kador. "If I apologize for being late, it shows that I value your time and that I intend to improve so that we don't have this issue again. If I'm late again, you have every right to conclude that my apology is insincere. As hard as it is to say I'm sorry, it's hard to commit to the change in behavior."
Don't ask for forgiveness
It seems like an automatic part of an apology: "Can you forgive me?" But both Kador and Bloom warn against it. "Making an apology after you've messed up is like paying a debt, which is why we say, 'I owe you an apology,'" says Bloom. "Forgiveness, however, is a gift that needs to be freely given, not demanded. If you ask for it before the other person is ready to give it, you're applying unfair pressure." If you want to include something about forgiveness, wait until your apology is delivered and you've listened to the victim. Then you can say something like "I hope I can earn your forgiveness" or "I hope you can forgive me."
Accept the reaction
Once you've apologized, it's up to the victim to respond to what you've said. Now is the time to listen and not argue with him or her. You may or may not like how someone reacts to an apology, but listening to the other person is an essential part of an effective apology. "It demonstrates that you respect her and are truly interested in understanding how she felt about what you did," says Bloom, adding that it's hard for many people to hear criticism about their actions. "Take it as constructive even if it doesn't sound that way and recognize that you can only do better next time if you listen in the first place."
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.