Sometimes we mess up.  Royally.  Unforgettably.  Disastrously.  And sometimes when we mess up, we damage others’ property or even hurt their feelings.  When that happens, it’s time for an apology.  As our big Jewish Day of Atonement looms, it seems an opportune time to discuss what I’ve learned about how to say you’re sorry and do it right.

For the Jewish people, this time of year is the season of repentance.  Starting with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and extending through Yom Kippur – the most serious and solemn of all holidays on the Jewish calendar – we Jews fall on our swords and ask forgiveness for our sins of the past year (for those of you familiar with Catholic traditions, it’s kind of like an “instant Lent”). During the past week, I’ve been systematically collecting and cataloging the last year’s mess-ups, preparing to amend my wrongs and ask others for their forgiveness.  Having been on the giving and receiving end of bad apologies, I realize that now is the time to give my apology skills an overhaul.  Now with this post you can benefit from my experience.

Making good apologies isn’t difficult.  The 12th century sage Maimonides said that true repentance requires humility, remorse, forbearance and reparation.

Not much has changed since then.

  1. Own the offense, even if it makes you squirmy:  Not “I’m sorry you misunderstood me,” rather, “I’m sorry I called you a fat bastard.”
  2. Be specific; own the sin:  “I’m sorry I smashed your smartphone with a rock.”  But don’t go overboard: “I’m sorry I destroyed your smartphone, which you so insensitively checked every two minutes, during our romantic dinner.”
  3. Use the first person, and avoid passive voice:  “I apologize for running over your smartphone with my car,” not “I apologize your smartphone was broken.”
  4. Acknowledge the impact:  “I know I was not respecting your time you when I showed up late to dinner. I know you had a busy day, and I’m sorry I made you wait for me to start.” 
  5. Don’t offer too much explanation:  Keep explanations short and relevant, and, above all, don’t use them as justification for your actions. “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes at you during dinner, but you were droning on and on about the same topic for what seemed like hours,” is not an effective apology.
  6. Finally, mean it when you say it. When you apologize, feel sorry in your heart.

When you’ve said your piece, let the other person have their say.  If they need time to process, let them process.  Even if they say nothing but “I accept your apology,” just politely say “thank you.”  If the other person remains angry, you have to sit with that for a while.  And, if they don’t accept your apology the first time out, it’s your responsibility to try at least two more times.  If they still don’t accept, it’s time to assess the overall state of your relationship.

In all, making a good apology means being a little vulnerable.  In his book On Apology, author Aaron Lazare said, “Apologies are one of the most profound interactions that can happen between people.  Apologies can heal humiliation, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, remove the desire for vengeance, and ultimately restore human relationships.”  I totally agree.