THE BLOG
08/16/2009 03:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Power of a Sincere Apology

Apologies happen -- sometimes multiple times a day. We apologize when we unintentionally say something hurtful, when we make a mistake at work, or when we bump into somebody on the street. And then there are the bigger apologies -- those we should have addressed months or years ago. Maybe we said something to alienate someone, perhaps we judged too quickly or did something we regret. Saying "I'm sorry" remains one of the hardest things to do. We justify our actions, we present half-apologies, we blame the one we've hurt, or we expect something in return. Yet a true apology can clear the air and potentially heal a relationship.

Align Head and Heart
It's easy to say "I'm sorry," but meaning it is another story. A true apology occurs when the heart and head are in alignment, when you intellectually and emotionally accept the responsibility for causing another person pain, even if you've done it unintentionally. Becoming accountable for your actions is the foundation of an honest apology.

Write Before Speaking
If you are struggling to find the right words, write your apology down first. Writing gives you the space and time to see how you really feel -- for instance, you'll discover whether you are truly sorry or whether you harbor any lingering hostility toward the person. It's important to deal with these feelings before approaching the one you've hurt, or you may reopen the conflict.

Don't Expect Anything in Return
A true apology is a selfless act. An apology is insincere when it is about wanting -- forgiveness, attention -- and not about giving. If you hurt a loved one with words or actions, take a moment to accept your role in what has happened and to imagine how you would feel if the same was done to you. At that point you can begin to make an apology that requires nothing from the one who is receiving it. Keep it simple. "I understand that I really hurt you and I want you to know that I am truly sorry."

Don't Respond Defensively
When you apologize you are tapping into humility by acknowledging your weaknesses and recognizing the grace of another human being. For example, if a friend tells you that you hurt her feelings by saying something insensitive, acknowledge the slip without becoming defensive or blaming. (For example, "I thought you wanted me to be honest with you!" or "You always speak like that to me.") When it's time to apologize, experiment with something like this: "I didn't realize that my words were so hurtful, but I can see now how they must have stung. I truly am sorry that I caused you any pain."

Create a Clear Intention
Be sure to clarify the intention of your apology -- even when the person you've hurt is not open to receiving your words. Ask yourself if you truly are sorry that you've inflicted pain and when the answer is "yes," work to find the appropriate words to illustrate your feelings. Regardless of the words you choose, your true intention will shine through. So be honest with yourself before approaching another with an apology.

Be Present
A sincere apology can be spoken, written, or simply felt strongly. (For example, imagine how you might apologize to someone whose relative has passed on.) There is no right way to articulate your feelings of apology. All you need to do is acknowledge your part in the other person's pain without rushing through the moment.

Commit to Being Better
A sincere apology also includes a commitment to become a better person -- to avoid making the same mistake again. After acknowledging the ways in which you hurt another, make an effort to express the ways in which you will act differently in the future. For example, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. Now that I know that speaking in that tone of voice rubs you the wrong way, I will work to change the way I approach you."

Remain Grounded and Accepting
As you prepare to say you're sorry -- and during the actual apology -- stay grounded and strong. Accept the uncomfortable feelings that arise within you, and accept whatever reaction you get from the other person.

Drop Your Justifications
Our tendency is take things personally, so personally that our egos and minds convince us that we were justified in acting in a way that hurt another person. We focus on our "why" instead of their feelings. Instead of acknowledging that we've contributed to sadness or anger or disappointment in another, we hide behind reasons for doing what we did. An apology is sincere when we are able to recognize the feeling and move past the "why."

Release Guilt, Soothe Pain
Although a true apology is selfless, by nature it is also mutually beneficial. A sincere apology releases the heart from guilt while soothing the pain of another. Guilt robs the soul of joy and inner peace. By making a heartfelt apology, you acknowledge the hurt you've inflicted on another, releasing his or her pain while also defusing your guilt. This can also begin the process of restoring the trust that's been broken.