How to say sorry (and act like you mean it)

There is great power in apologising – but only if it is done correctly

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

And it should be, says psychotherapist and member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Mary Lynn. "It's actually quite difficult for people to say sorry. If you find it very easy, it is probably not heartfelt. The other person will usually recognise that."

Really sorry

To be really sorry, you need to know what you did wrong. If you are genuinely stumped, ask some questions. “You could ask, ‘What did you hear me say?’ It comes down to perspectives,” says Lynn. “Sometimes someone can hear something differently to what you intended. If you are going to say sorry, it has to come from a place where you accept you have caused upset, even if it wasn’t intentional, and then you take responsibility for it.”

Sorry, not sorry

Some “sorrys” are not sorry. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” is an example. “If you do that, you are not really validating someone’s feelings,” says Lynn. “You are putting it back on the other person. It’s almost passive aggressive. You are saying, ‘That’s yours, I have no part in that.’ Phrases like, ‘You are being too sensitive’, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, or the very worst, ‘Calm down’, will just send anyone into orbit,” says Lynn.

In their shoes

Sorry is about two people communicating. “Listen to the other person, don’t diminish their feelings,” says Lynn. “There are triggers going off everywhere and it’s all about perception. To actively listen, stop talking. Put yourself in their shoes and then you can say, ‘That was not my intention. Let me just say what I meant and see if it sounds the same to you.’”


I’m sorry, but…

If you have a complaint of your own, it might be best to hold it for a separate conversation. “If you are doing sorry, do the sorry,” says Lynn. Apologise for not inviting them to lunch, for example, but if you have noticed that they never take the lead on social activities, address that another time. According to Lynn, in such a situation you could try: “I’ve noticed I am the one often contacting you, are you aware of this? I would love for you to invite me some time, I really enjoy meeting up.”

Act promptly

If you know you did wrong, act quickly. “What happens is your brain tries to protect you by creating a story or a narrative to make you feel you are doing the right thing by not saying sorry. Then you go on reinforcing this,” says Lynn. Saying sorry is a form of emotional intelligence. “It’s about being bigger and saying, ‘Look, I got this completely wrong. I wasn’t sensitive to your feelings, I am truly sorry.’ It’s actually a strength and builds your own self-esteem.”

Make it better

“Sorry” done right should make the other person feel better. “All of us want to feel acknowledged and listened to. It is about seeing and hearing the other person and validating that they have these feelings rather than diminishing them,” says Lynn.

Show the kids

Another upside to saying “sorry” is it teaches your kids how to do it, says Lynn. “It’s good practice in a household that people can have disagreements and make up. The kids are seeing that you can say sorry and that things can be mended.” There is great power in saying sorry, she says. “We are human and we don’t get it right all the time and it can be a relief to say sorry. It’s about compassion for yourself and the other person.”