Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. While many sci..." /> Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. While many sci..." />

3 Simple Tips on How to Apologize Effectively

Teddy bear with flowers and a sorry noteConflict is an unavoidable part of life. While many scientists believe natural selection has influenced numerous species to seek victory in the face of conflict, other organisms, including humans, value relationships even after a conflict has occurred. We are, after all, highly social creatures.

So how can we salvage meaningful relationships after a fight with our loved ones and seek reconciliation? One critical way is by learning how to apologize effectively. A recent study conducted by McCullough, Pedersen, Tabak and Carter (2014) shows that there are three specific conciliatory gestures that go a long way toward reducing reactive anger and earning forgiveness. If you are currently plodding along the lonely path to redemption, consider these crucial steps to apologize effectively.

1. Say The Words

After hours of hurling insults, many people struggle to conjure up the courage to say “I am sorry.” To some it is almost akin to admitting defeat, and no one likes to lose. Many people go to great lengths to avoid uttering those three little words. Instead, they may buy flowers or offer a back rub, convinced that surely this must be enough. But is it?

Words are powerful. McCullough et al. (2014) found that people who experienced a conflict forgave easier if they thought they were less likely to be hurt again in the future. With this is mind, offering a sincere apology can be a better (and more cost effective) way to give our loved ones reassurance that we have made a commitment to avoid hurting them similarly in the future.

2. Take Responsibility

It is easy to think you are the victim in an intense verbal spat with a loved one. We tend to minimize our own errors while exaggerating the mistakes of others. This is the way we rationalize and justify our actions in conflicts. Simply put, we make excuses.

But if earning forgiveness is your ultimate goal, then attempt to be less defensive the next time you find yourself in a fight. Stop making excuses for yourself and your behavior and own up to your actions.

Why is this step so important? McCullough et al. (2014) claim that taking responsibility for your own wrongdoing in a fight can significantly improve the way the other person sees you. In other words, taking a moment to step back, breathe, and admit your fault can move you a long way forward on the road to forgiveness.

3. Pay for Your Mistakes (Literally and Figuratively)

Ask for the chance to make up or pay for your wrongdoing. This conciliatory gesture is even more effective if it comes at some personal cost to you. So pay for that broken window with your allowance, buy your sister a new pair of headphones to replace the ones you broke, or offer to help your spouse with extra housework after a squabble. In the end, you will be further along in the forgiveness process.

As previously stated, humans are not the only species that use reconciliatory gestures. Many group-dwelling mammals and other vertebrates also seek to resolve conflicts using similar means. According to McCullough et al. (2014), natural selection facilitated the development of reconciliatory gestures because interpersonal relationships are often necessary for our survival.

When You Need More Than an Apology

If you find yourself on the wrong side of a dispute, try to keep your chin up and seek forgiveness. Apologies do work, but be mindful that how you apologize also matters and sometimes an apology is not enough to repair a relationship. Sometimes the relationship needs work to thrive.

Couples counseling, individual therapy, and family therapy are all useful tools for people experiencing difficulties forgiving and moving beyond a fight. Therapy can give you an opportunity to analyze both the fight and the way you fight in order to develop better strategies for communicating your emotions. If you need help, try seeking out a qualified therapist to work on a relationship you value and want to keep.


  1. Evans, C.C., McCullough, M.E., Pedersen, E.J. & Tabak, B.A. (2014). Conciliatory gestures promote forgiveness and reduce anger in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(30), 11211-11216. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1405072111
  2. Gallagher, A. & Guma-Diaz, M. (2014, July 14). Power of an apology. University of Miami News. Retrieved from
  3. Greenfield, B. (2014, July 15). Why apologizing the right way matters. Yahoo Health. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Hugh

    September 23rd, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    Know what I really hate? When someone talks like they are apologizing but says something like they are sorry if what they did made me upset etc… I don’t wnat them to apologize for upsetting me I want them to own up and apologize for the hurtful thing that they did or said. I think that when they do it in a round about way like that that is their way of trying to shake off what responsibility that they have and not wanting to own up to the fact that they did something wrong. If and when you aplogize you have to sya it like you mean it and not twist things aorund so that it seems that you did absolutely nothing wrong.

  • Blakely

    September 24th, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    There has to be something heartfelt and meaningful to it,yo u know? Don’t just mumble the words, say it like you mean it and actually mean it

  • andi l

    September 24th, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    The one thing that I will say is that I need to hear the words. Flowers and balloons are nice touches, but I need to hear the words too. You can write them you can sing them, you can send them as a message in a bottle, but I need to know that the apology is sincere and to me that is all about saying those words.

  • Stephanie

    September 25th, 2014 at 6:57 AM

    Words are empowering yes, yet I think, saying the words I am sorry, require punishment. I don’t mean dominatrix style though. I only mean to say that those exact words would inflict not only a sense of defeat but also a future punishment as such a heightened emotional state was achieved. The law of attraction is a law and cannot be broken and those words attract a ‘sorry’ type of life.

    I try to use words that hit the heart straight away such as I don’t want you to hurt but that is all I’m feeling right now. Let’s take some time to breath and not talk so we can come together again with a clear head and a slowed heart. I care about you. Stuff like that, because my family means the world to me so the words I use are chosen carefully at the point of being able to admit defeat.

    Thank you

  • hank

    September 25th, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    It is important to take ownership and responsibility for what you may have done to cause the hurt. You can’t say things like you did it because you thought that this was the right thing to do, you just have to acknowledge that it was wrong. Do you want to accept the apology of someone who does nothing but make you feel like this is all your fault? Of course you don’t none of us do. But this is where I think that so many of us go wrong ith our apologies , we try to preface them by the fact or the supposed fact that we did it for them. That’s bull, we did something wrong and need to own up to it.

  • Jessamine

    September 26th, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    I am pretty sure that my husband thinks that is he pretends like it is all over with then it will be and eventually I will forget about it. I ill admit that there are sometimes when I do forget about it for a while but then it can all come back to me and I just want to tell him that see. It would have been a whole lot better if we had just worked it all out from the start instead of trying to bury it, because even when you bury something it can eventually come back to the surface and rear its ugly head all over again. Just say you are sorry and move on with it.

  • carter B

    September 28th, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    Effectively saying that you are sorry- it has to be intentional and from the heart. It can’t be all about you and getting you off the hook- instead it has to be about telling someone that you love just how sorry that you are to have hurt them.

  • Belle

    September 29th, 2014 at 3:59 PM

    I have to admit to you that there have been a lot of times when I guess that I try to pass the buck, and try to apologize in a way that actually makes the other person sound like they are really at fault but that I am willing to be the better person and say I am sorry first. I am not really sure what I think that I can gain through doing this other than making myself feel better about myself when really I shoudl feel like crap for twisting and turning things so that the other persi=on now feels compelled to say that they are sorry to me too! Yes I have the little problem with accepting responsibility for things and no matter how much I try I always seem to act like that. I hate it but there are times when it happens and I don’t even realize that I have done it until I am getting an apology from someone who really does not oe me one at all.

  • babzee

    September 30th, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    My grandpop used to say the only sorry that counts is the one written down. Write a letter the old fasioned way to say sorry if you really mean it

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