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How to say 'I'm sorry' and really mean it

First rule: The apology isn't about you.
Image: A couple talks in a cafe
A good apology isn’t a statement from one person to another; it’s a dialogue between both parties.Lumina Images / Getty Images/Blend Images

What makes a good apology? It’s a question we may be ruminating on as disgraced celebrities like Louis CK respond to allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Surely, these are extreme situations where a possible crime has taken place and an apology may not cut it. But what is the right way to say we’re sorry that doesn’t merely relieve our guilt or get us out of hot water, but best serves the person we hurt?

“Making a truly authentic apology is perhaps one of the most challenging relationship skills because for most people, it is so very difficult to admit wrongdoing,” says Jude Treder-Wolff, a clinical social worker, certified group psychotherapist and creative arts therapist. “The reasons for this range from old, unprocessed resentments that can seem to justify the wrongdoing, defenses that block our ability to see that we are capable of inflicting pain on someone we love, to feeling so overwhelmed by the knowledge that we have caused someone else pain that we shut down when it comes to communicating about it.”

Consider the Motive Behind Your Apology

Ask yourself what’s motivating the apology. Is it coming from a sincere place of remorse and a desire to improve? Or do you just want to smooth things over? This apology prep-phase, if you will, is essential. One of the reasons it’s difficult for many of us to take the remorseful statements of these famous men seriously is because they seem to be apologizing solely because they got busted. That prompts the question: Is this really about the hurt party’s well being, or is it about yours?

“It’s important to take time to think about what your true purpose is in making the apology,” says Javanne Golob, a clinical social worker. “Is it a power play? Is it to get your way? Is it to manipulate the situation? Or is it to honor the offended party's feelings, take responsibilities for your actions, repair the relationship and learn from your mistakes?”

Before you apologize, make sure the apology is coming from the right place. From there, you may want to consider implementing what Dr. Jill Murray, a psychotherapist and the author of The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Divorce refers to as “the four Cs of apology: confession, contrition, compassion and consistent change of behavior.” Here are the four steps to a better apology:

1. Go Ahead and Confess, But No Excuses — You Did This

The act of confessing sounds simple enough, but your language and phrasing are critical.

“The party needs to tell the victim what she or he did without excuses or blame,” says Murray. “[As opposed to] ‘I did this because you did that,’ or ‘I did this because I was drunk,’ etc.”

You’ll also want to nix the ‘ifs, ands or buts.’ Stay focused on the facts of what you did, not your own estimation of the damage. Or, as David White, director of the conflict management program at Seton Hall University School of Law says, don’t “don’t qualify the atonement.”

“In many instances, shifting the blame inflicts a new, and perhaps unintended level of anger or betrayal,” says White. Tiffany Ashenfelter, a therapist notes that a bad apology could start with “I'm sorry if you felt…” or “I'm sorry that you…” as “both of these place responsibility on the other part. A better option might sound like: ‘I'm sorry for the pain my words/actions caused.’”

2. Be Contrite and Make A Plan To Change

The second ‘C’ is contrition, and this is more than just that expressing you’re truly sorry (though that’s surely apart of it), it’s also making a commitment to change right then and there.

“The party is truly sorry and explains why they are sorry along with a plan to change behavior,” says Murray. “It is not a superficial apology, but part of a larger plan.”

If you don’t have a plan to prevent your harmful behavior from recurring, then you risk making an “empty apology,” which Ashenfelter defines as “an apology that isn't followed up with a change in behavior, attitude, etc.”

3. Have Compassion and Be Prepared to Listen

Compassion, the third C, is where you have put a lid on it and listen to what the offended party has to say. It's where we begin to understand that a good apology isn’t a statement from one person to another; it’s a dialogue between both parties.

“We cannot assume to know what other people are feeling, therefore, it is important to listen attentively and without interrupting in order for the other person to feel heard,” says Dr. Michele Kerulis, professor of counseling at Counseling@Northwestern. “Invite the other person to share his or her side of the story as well as the emotions experienced after the situation. Even if you do not fully understand the person’s emotions, it is important to recognize that the other person experienced something uncomfortable.”

4. Get Ready to Change Because This is Just The Beginning

The fourth and final ‘C’ stands for a few words, ‘consistent change of behavior.’ As Dr. Murray stresses, the offending party must commit to putting in the work at changing. This won’t happen overnight.

“[The offending party] must do the work necessary to change the behavior: therapy or rehab for the long-term; not a few sessions in therapy or 30 days in rehab without therapy upon exit,” says Murray.

Certainly Dr. Murray is alluding to more extreme situations where apologies can be a lifetime of work and still never be enough. But even if you did something comparably minor, like bailing on a friend or being late all the time, it’s always key to remember that while you’re the one apologizing, it’s not about you; it’s about the person you hurt and what they need now.

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