What to Say When… You are Really, Truly Sorry

Welcome to my blog. I’m a psychologist and the co-author (with Gary Chapman) of When Sorry Isn’t Enough. I share tips about What to Say When challenging conversations arise and I welcome your thoughts and questions. I’ll check back in frequently to chime in on the conversations here.

In our book, When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Gary Chapman and I talk about five essential parts of any apology. In this blog post, I’ll talk in detail about our first Apology Language: Expressing Regret.

Regret focuses on what you did or failed to do and how it affected the other person. The offended one is hurt, and they want to know that you “get it.”  Beyond saying, “I am sorry”, what else can you do?

An apology has no impact unless it’s specific. When we get into the details, we show that we truly understand how much we have hurt him or her. We place the focus on our action and how it affected the other person. And the more details we can give, the better.

Sincere regret also needs to stand alone. It should not be followed with “But…”. Rodney, who has been married three years to his second wife, says, “I know that my wife means it when she says, ‘I’m sorry. I know that I hurt you by yelling at you.’ Then she does not go on to accuse me of causing her to get upset. My first wife always blamed me for everything.”

Many people in our research made statements similar to this: “She apologizes, but then turns it around and blames her actions on something I did.” Any time we shift the blame to the other person, we have moved from an apology to an attack. Attacks never lead to restored trust.

For some people, getting a sincere expression of regret is the strongest language of apology. It is what convinces them that the apology is sincere. Without it, they will hear your words but the words will appear empty. For them, it feels like opening a gift that has nothing inside.

My Real Life Example:

Two years ago, I was part of a group of women who received end-of-the-year thank you gifts for each having led a small group. I love freebies as much as the next person, so I thought this sounded great. I selected my prize from a sales consultant’s catalog and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my thank-you gift. The summer came and went with no delivery of my product. I began to wonder, “Where is my order?”

When the end of the year came with no package, I realized that my order was not likely to come. I actually decided at that time that it was not worth pursuing the issue with anyone. I reasoned that I had enjoyed leading the group and put the item out of my mind with the refrain, “Easy come, easy go.”

Imagine my surprise when I got a telephone message from the consultant the next spring. She said that she had been cleaning out boxes and found my order! She closed the phone message by saying simply that she wanted to arrange to get the item to me. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised to be in the position to receive what I had already let go. However, something was nagging at me.

I replayed her message and confirmed my suspicion: She failed to say, “I am sorry for my mistake,” or to express any sort of regret.

I pondered the issue in my mind long enough to write it down and to wonder how often I might do the same thing. Do I correct problems, yet not assume responsibility or express regret? The magic words “I’m sorry” often make a world of difference.

This example from my life is about a minor problem. Our survey showed that people want a really good apology when your mistake is either serious or repeated. In those cases, you could try on one of these phrases and add your own details. Remember to stop yourself if you get the itch to say “But.”

What to Say When You Really Mess Up at Home or at Work:

  • I know now that I hurt you very deeply. That causes me immense pain. I am truly sorry for what I did.
  • I feel really bad that I disappointed you. I should have been more thoughtful. I’m sorry that I caused you so much pain.
  • I never intended to hurt you, but now I can see that my words were way out of line. I’m sorry that I was so insensitive.
  • I am sorry that I violated your trust. I’ve created a roadblock in our relationship that I want to remove. I understand that even after I apologize, it may take awhile for you to venture down the road of trust with me again.
  • You were promised a service that we have not provided. I am sorry that our company clearly dropped the ball this time.

Share Your Thoughts Here:

How can you tell if people really understand the hurt they have caused you?

How can the above suggestions help you tell if someone’s apology is sincere?


New! Leave a comment here or under any of my posts this month and/or share this post and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a $20 Amazon gift card from me.

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  • Ekasa

    I had a bad thing happen to me almost over a decade ago. It cost me a lot in my life and I am still oppressed by the situation. False information was given to me and it caused me to lose my right to earn two degrees. It removed my credibility and made me live under oppressive captivity since the incident happened. It let me not be freed from the people involved in it during this time. I am a Christian and pray to God for those who did this to have a change of heart, repent of their actions, and correct it. I wrote a sample apology letter with what I would like to hear to lift my mood.

    I reviewed it recently. I noticed that the things that made me feel like an apology was sincere was the person telling the truth. I want the person to say the truth. The truth will set me free. To correct it, I want them to say what they did wrong (the false information given), correct it by saying the truth, and clean up the effects of this dishonesty on my life. I also want them to take the initiative in doing this without requiring anything back-such as a do not take any action against us or asking for an apology. I don’t like promises to do things in the future. It makes me say yeah, right. Also, if they don’t keep their promises, they become untrustworthy and insincere. They also could ask and offer to assist in resolving problems arising from their conduct. I like the apology to come in a nice way-not in an unfriendly hostile looking envelope which can be retraumatizing when all contacts with the person has been bad news or unfriendly. I like the person to send it in or with a gift card. When I read the letter, the part that made me feel like they were truly sorry was showing empathy and acknowledging how their actions caused suffering, emotional hurt, or problems. They didn’t say they knew how I felt but just said that they know it negatively affected my life.

    In conclusion, this is what makes an apology sincere to me…
    *They say they are sorry and show empathy.
    *They tell the truth. They say what they did wrong, the right thing to have done, and accept responsibility for their actions.
    *If they make future promises to change, they should do something in the present to prove that they mean it. For example, they can offer you a new appointment for free to resolve the problem and give you option of setting a date if they provided bad service. If they made you lose money, they can offer you a refund and actually send you a check with the apology without your having to request it. Doing this removes stress for the person wronged.
    *They take the initiative to correct the situation. You don’t have to ask for it.
    *They deliver the apology in a friendly way. They can send it in a greeting card or leave a note on your desk, if it happened at work. It’s important to follow-up with the person after doing this to make sure they got the message and also to confront and deal with this uncomfortable situation. If you can’t apologize in person because of shame or embarrassment/shyness, it can be used to break the ice. You can go back later in person to apologize in person. The person might even come to you first to thank you for the apology. During this holiday season, you can send the person a Christmas or holiday card with the apology in it and to lift their moods.
    *The apology focuses on what the apologizing party did wrong and not what the recipient did wrong. It doesn’t blame the person for it.

    • jenniferthomas

      You’re right- the TRUTH is so very important.

  • Bev Fortenberry Lohr

    The truth and complete disclosure of what happened and why are important to me. My husband and I have gone thru a problem with him being involved with another woman. In trying to spare my feelings he kept dancing around details and truths. This has lead to even more distrust as his story kept changing. He still doesn’t understand that just I’m sorry is not enough. I needed to know why and as he wanted our marriage to get back on track I need time to be able to trust agsin. We have been married 30 yrs. On the 22nd we will be attending Dr Gary’s Language of Love in our area. Looking forward to it. I’m also ordering the book When Sorry Is Not Enough.

    • jenniferthomas

      Bev, it’s been a few months since you attended Gary Chapman’s marriage event. How did that go? I hope things are looking up for you!

  • David

    Sometimes I need the person to tell me that they realize that they can never really understand the pain or discomfort they have caused me because it was that personal. This is especially true when someone embarrasses me or defiles my good name.

    In general, though, I like to hear specifics spelled out. For example, “I did xyz. That was wrong of me. I can’t begin to imagine how that must have made you fell. I know that I would feel (however they would feel) and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I would probably want to (however they would seek restoration).

    In this way I know that they have taken the time to realize they they have not just committed a social faux pas but have really hurt someone and have stirred up true empathy in themselves. You can’t speak those words without having put an ounce of time in feeling what the person you’ve wronged has felt.

    • jenniferthomas

      Well said, David!