How to Apologize Effectively: Five Essential Components

by | Nov 11, 2012 | Relationships

“I’m sorry” These simple words often seem to be so difficult to say. When we utter them and they fall flat, it can be even more difficult to apologize in the future. Other times, “I’m sorry” can feel like parroting without the sincerity we need to truly forgive. Have you ever tried to apologize, but still felt a rift in the relationship? Have you ever had someone important to you apologize, but you could not offer forgiveness because you were not sure it was sincere? Recently I overhead one friend say to another, “he has apologized to you three times already, what else do you need to hear?” The Five Languages of Apology by Gary Chapman (author of The Five Love Languages) and Jennifer Thomas explains why there is so often miscommunication in attempts at apology. 
The theory behind the Five Languages of Apology is that each of us has a “first language” that needs to be spoken for an apology to feel sincere. However, the most effective apology will include all five components. There are many situations in life when you may not be able to determine someone’s primary apology language; unless you utilize all five components you are likely to miss the mark, and your attempt at an apology will fall on deaf ears. 
  1. Express Regret – “I’m sorry” is the most common way people express regret. Regret communicates that you feel sorrow about any pain created in the relationship. 
  2. Accept Responsibility – Regardless of intention, accepting responsibility admits that your actions created a hurt. It can be difficult to admit that you make mistakes, but that is what is necessary to accept responsibility. A simple way of accepting responsibility is with the phrase “I was wrong.” The most genuine form of accepting responsibility will recognize the specific damage caused by your actions. 
  3. Make Restitution – For some people, amends must be made to demonstrate the sincerity of the apology. In some situations, making it right may come more easily; in other situations there may not be any way to truly fix the situation that has been created. Speaking someone’s primary love language is a good way to make restitution. 
  4. Genuinely Repent – If it were my theory, I would use the term ‘Commit to Change’ rather than Genuinely Repent. When you regret your actions and take responsibility for the damage caused, a commitment to not do the same can easily follow. Change is not easy, thus repentance does not ensure that mistakes will be made; however, the commitment can include problem solving and allowing the other to hold you accountable to your commitment. 
  5. Request Forgiveness – For some people an apology cannot be complete without “will you forgive me?” being included. Requesting forgiveness admits responsibility and injury caused, but it also states that forgiveness is not assumed and up to the injured party to grant. Requesting forgiveness admits that the relationship has been damaged and cannot move forward without forgiveness. Forgiveness allows the relationship to continue; however, it does not necessarily restore trust immediately. The Five Languages of Apology identifies trust as an emotion rather than a decision. While forgiveness may be granted, trust may have to be re-built. 
An apology is absolutely necessary to repair, restore, and continue a relationship after a hurt. Relationships are complicated, and the more important important the relationship is, the more likely it is that we will unintentionally cause harm. An effective apology can not only restore a relationship, it can help it to grow. An effective apology communicates that the relationship is important and the person’s feelings are important. An ineffective apology or no apology at all can communicate to the other that you do not truly value the relationship. 


The authors offer an online assessment to help you determine what your primary apology language might be. As I took the assessment, it became clear that the types of apologies I find most effective are dependent on the relationship. What I would prefer from a coworker is different from a restaurant and different from a romantic relationship. The type of relationship may require a specific type of apology. An individual’s personality may may require a specific type of apology, but in relationships with coworkers, clients, or even in new dating relationships, you may not know the primary apology language of the person to whom you wish to apologize. I encourage you to try to utilize all five apology languages as necessary components of an effective apology. I am sure you will find your relationships and interactions will improve. 
Is there something you need to apologize for doing? Have you apologized for something but the relationship has not improved potentially because you missed the listener’s primary apology language? Has someone tried to apologize to you, but it felt empty or insincere? 
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