I have always loved learning (and collecting) helpful tools that I can take into my relationships to make life better. The apology process I’m sharing with you here is one of the absolute best tools I’ve ever used.
We all make mistakes! Woo-Hoo!
If we’re not making mistakes in our daily lives and relationships, we’re probably living with a sleeping bear, isolated in a cave.
We don’t want to make mistakes, of course. Hopefully, when we do make mistakes that hurt other people, they’re minor. But life happens.
So the next time you make a mistake in a relationship and you need to apologize to someone, you’ll have a better way of repairing any hurt caused
with this process.
I got the base to this apology process in therapy many years ago, but what you’ll find below are my personal tweaks and updates to those apology steps.
Let’s jump right into the 10 apology steps listed below so you can apologize like a boss (I’ll share a few extra thoughts with you at the end).
What’s your goal?
The ultimate goal for this process is to fully repair what was broken in the relationship. It’s intended to make the bond you have with the other person even stronger than it was before.
Most of the time, when this process is done fully and intentionally, the other person is actually glad that the mistake was made.
Note: The apologizer is the one who made a mistake that hurt someone else and is taking these steps to apologize. The recipient is the one receiving the apology, who was hurt by the mistake.
Is now a good time?
When the apologizer is ready, it’s always best to make sure it’s a good time for both parties.
“Is now a good time?” is an excellent question to ask before beginning. This establishes a commitment from both parties to take the time for the process.
If it’s a yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, be sure to set a time preferably within the next 24 – 48 hours to sit down together.
1. Start with an apology that is specific.
This initial step is to acknowledge that both people know why their coming together. Sometimes they can have different ideas about the exact same experience, so this starts it off with the most basic reason for the apology.
- “I’m sorry I was twenty minutes late to the banquet that you spent so much time planning for the family.”
- “I’m sorry I forgot to pick up your clothes again.”
- “I’m sorry I broke the green glass bowl that you love so much.”
- “I’m sorry I yelled at you so loudly and meanly on the way home from school.”
- “I’m sorry I shoved you last night.”
2. Fully own your shit.
This step fully owns what the apologizer did. It expands on the first step and is super-duper-uper important.
Taking the example of being late from above, it might sound something like this: “I said I was going to be at the banquet by 5 p.m. because you and I talked about my issues with being late. I told you I would be there by 5 p.m. and I wasn’t.
What I did that made me late was that I talked to a coworker for too long on my way out of the office. Then I stopped to get gas on the way to the banquet. I’m not sure why I did this because I didn’t totally need gas yet.
It was because of those two delays that I didn’t arrive to the banquet until around 5:25, which was almost half an hour later than we agreed to and I told you I would be there.”
That is the step, where even if the error is not the apologizer’s fault (say there was a traffic jam), they own the exact action as it happened.
I know this is obvious advice, but lying during this process will further damage any relationship . . . and that would be sad.
3. Validate the other person’s feelings.
Really (like really, really) try to imagine what it was like for the other person.
The apologizer shares three to five feelings the recipient may have felt when the mistake was made. While doing this, it’s helpful to remember that we are doing this difficult and hard process because we are awesome human beings and we really love this person.
It might sound like this: “That must have made you feel incredibly angry and hurt when I was late to the banquet. I imagine that my tardiness may have made you feel unimportant to me as well. And I suspect you must have felt disappointed and maybe humiliated in front of our family.”
This is often when the tears begin (both sides). It’s so liberating to be seen so clearly, and it’s so damn hard to admit the mistake we made hurt someone we love so much.
Keep going because we’re getting to more good parts!
4. Ask if you got it right.
“Did I get that right?”
“Was that how you felt?”
5. Shut yo mouth and listen.
The apologizer now listens to the recipient.
The recipient was hurt and now’s their chance to share that hurt. Out loud. To someone who loves them and wants to help.
This part (being the recipient and saying my feelings) was super hard for me when I was on the receiving end of an apology. Like, I wanted to puke-all-of-my-brains-out difficult. Nowadays I can rattle off my feelings easily, and that in itself is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from this process.
Healing takes time. And we’re not used to it unless our families used these types of tools and they’re familiar. I feel that’s pretty uncommon, but we’re all hopefully working hard at this now.
Above all else, know that everyone is okay through this process.
I can’t stress enough about how difficult this process is in the beginning. Keep going! I’m happy to report that it gets easier and actually becomes joyful with time, practice, and consistency.
So maybe the emotions were correct and the recipient says, “Yes, that’s exactly how I felt. I was angry, disappointed, and humiliated.”
Or they might say, “You got most of that right, but I didn’t feel disappointed. I felt really rejected by you.”
This is a time for the recipient to just talk and share until they feel complete. I think this might be the most important step because it’s when the bridge starts to reappear between two people.
6. Apologize again with specificity.
Here is where the apologizer will name what they did WITH the feelings the recipient just shared with them. This is like the home run of the process so the recipient is fully seen, fully understood, and fully validated.
Following the same example: “I’m really sorry that my being late to the banquet made you feel hurt, angry, and rejected. This was in front of the family and I imagine that made it worse for you. I will absolutely work on my tardy habits from here on out. You’re so important to me and I love you so much and I do not want to hurt you.”
Ahh, this safe openness can feel so soothing to both parties involved.
7. Offer a restoration gift.
Some people call this an “accountability gift,” but I don’t care for that term as the word accountability feels more punitive rather than reparative. Use language that works for you.
In the relationship, the energy with the mistake/error/hurt has been broken, so it needs to be “repaired.”
This is the part where both parties look at the level of hurt and decide what might need to be exchanged in order to fully clean up the mistake.
If it was a small snapping comment that was done out of an obvious moment of frustration, often times nothing needs to be exchanged except for the words above.
If someone was physically scared by a shove or some action like that, that would most likely be a larger exchange to repair the hurt.
The person giving the apology decides they’d like to offer a restoration gift, and they’ll say at this point in the process, “I’d like to offer you a restoration gift. Do you need one?”
The receiving person might feel like just being heard is enough. I’ve done this many times because sometimes it’s just the acknowledgement of the mistake that was needed.
If that is the case, the receiver can simply say, “No, thank you, I don’t need a restoration gift.”
If the hurt still really hurts though, the receiving person can say, “Yes, I do need a restoration gift.”
Then the apologizer asks, “Would you like a small, medium, or large gift?”
The following step can bring in some very subjective space and every relationship will handle this differently. This is where both parties can make it work for them, but you’ll find the basic structure in Step 8.
8. Start the negotiations.
8a. What to do if they say “No.”
So the recipient has decided they do not need an actual gift. The apologizer can simply say “OK, thank you for letting me know and thank you for listening.”
The apologizer can certainly choose to do something extra nice for the recipient in the next day or two anyway. Being nice is always better than not.
8b. What to do if they say “Yes.”
The recipient might reply, “Yes, I would like a restoration gift.”
The apologizer then asks if they need a small, medium, or large gift. These sizes can be determined within the relationship . . . and the available budget.
The intention here is that the person apologizing tries to imagine what would bring the recipient the most joy and “restore” the hurt that was caused. They really try to get into the other person’s shoes, and they make an offer of what they would like to do that the other person would love.
Following are some ideas at each level to get you started:
Small restoration gift ideas:
- Getting them a glass of water or snack
- Doing the dishes
- Giving them a back rub
- Making a nicer than usual dinner with their favorite foods.
- Buying them two packs of Pokemon cards
- Taking them for ice cream and a long walk
- Do their make-up
- Draw a picture or write a poem
- They have to play your favorite game with you after school
Medium restoration gift ideas:
- Doing the dishes for two weeks
- Taking the kids to school without complaint for the next week
- Taking your child to the movies and getting them their favorite snacks
- Organizing their clothes, cleaning their room, or doing all of their laundry
- Make an appointment and pay for a make-over, hair coloring, or manicure/pedicure
- Taking them to their favorite restaurant, including dessert and coffee
Large restoration gift ideas:
- A weekend retreat
- Dance lessons for the next three months
- Washing the car for the next three months every two weeks
- Full room remodel with a cap amount if needed
- Massage subscription for the next twelve months
9. Negotiate until you both feel good.
Through this entire experience, both parties are hopefully being cared for through a safe and active exchange of listening and giving. There was a mistake made and there was hurt caused by that mistake. This is the next-to-last action to help fully resolve it.
This step is where both parties decide what the gift exchange will be. The main rule is to make sure the gift is clearly defined with a definitive time limit established.
In the case of offering to take the recipient out to dinner, it might look like the following, “I’d like to take you to Del Frisco’s on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. I’ll call our babysitter to see if she’s available, and if she’s not, I’ll call your Mom to see if she’ll watch the kids. How does that sound to you?”
Hopefully, the recipient falls in love with this idea and is all, “Yes, please, that sounds awesome!”
If not though, they can counter-offer with something like, “That’s awesome. I’d love that, but can we also go dancing afterward?”
And so that process goes until you find an energizing gift that feels great to both parties.
10. DO IT WITH JOY!
This is ultimately a celebration of two people building bridges to each other (and to all of humanity if you ask me).
You messed up, Yay!
You got hurt, Yay!
Welcome to the human condition, right?
Shit’s going to happen and you’re cleaning it up with full intentionality, generosity, love, and kindness.
Now, the apologizer must (MUST) do the action and it must be done on time and it must be done with as much joy as possible! If not, the restoration for not restoring properly can be hugely burdensome and then trust gets eroded and you might just end up down the restoration rabbit hole. No bueno.
If everyone just does what was agreed to and they do it well and they do it with joy, your world will be a more beautiful and kinder place.
A Few Notes:
How to get started
First, I would try this with someone you have a kind and uncomplicated relationship with that really wants to learn this process as well.
If either of you don’t have a small mistake you’ve made with the other, you could do something cute and funny as a subject to practice. Maybe you could take their phone roughly? Or you could say, “You’re a poopy-head!” and then do the entire process from there.
Just like any new skill, starting with a super easy example can teach you all the steps easily and it won’t be so emotionally difficult at first.
This, again, has been one of the best relationship tools I’ve ever worked with for Michael. He ultimately had to figure out how another person might have felt when he did certain actions against someone else.
I’m remembering that it was super difficult in the beginning for him (for all of us). As we got started, I think I just told him what I had felt when he yelled at me. He didn’t like hurting me at all, but it was a fact of life. I explained that was okay, that we just try not to do it again.
And I would share with Michael what Mason was probably feeling when Michael either yelled at him or physically hurt him. Mason was still very quiet at that time, so Mason had a difficult time naming his feelings. So one kid was screaming his hurts and another kid was holding everything inside. Paradox parenting at it’s finest, yeah.
Michael understands this process fully now, mostly because practice makes perfect. I modeled the behavior I wanted my children to take into their lives so they would eventually do this process without me even initiating it. Gorgeousness for sure!
Doing this work diligently with your children really does work.
This Work Is Not Easy (at first)
This is not easy work by any means. We’re not taught emotionally healthy tools on a regular basis. Schools seem to just now be implementing “friends and feelings” curriculum. I have big hope that we’re moving in that direction.
I did many, many years of therapy before I was able to stand in my strength, truth, and authenticity to be able to make and accept full apologies as needed.
The shame of admitting my wrongdoings used to completely overwhelm me.
I remember once leaving a really cool relationship because of some petty little thing I had done. I have no idea if it would have worked out, but the shame and regret were too much for me. It takes time if you’re just beginning.
Also note that this process might not be workable with certain people. If someone wants too much for too little, I don’t suspect it will be sustainable. If someone isn’t able or willing to admit their errors, it just might not be feasible to try and engage with them in this way. That’s okay.
You’ll hopefully know who you can do this with and who you can’t.
When Mistakes Are Repeated Over and Over
What if the same mistake keeps happening in a relationship?
If someone is constantly late to appointments and family functions (or something else), there’s typically a larger issue at hand. When this happens, I might recommend that going to therapy or a counselor becomes the restoration exchange.
Our autistic friends typically have to practice new skills more than others in order to really understand them and get them right. You might need to take out a few steps of the process until those smaller parts are mastered. When it feels right, you can add other steps back in.
The steps above are a solid guideline, but you get to make the process work for you and those that you love.
Our Children and Their Futures
Imagine your children learning this early on in their lives.
So awesome to think about that, right?
This process can be followed in ANY relationship you are in.
It will look a little different with children, spouses, friends, and family, but imagine a world where our feelings are validated and we’re taught to validate other’s feelings, especially at an early age!
I do this process often with my children, and we’ve been practicing it for so long that my children do it with each other without blinking an eye. It can truly become that familiar and easy.
I know there have been times where I’ll see one of my sons go and get their brother a cup of water as a “restoration” for something they did or said that was hurtful.
They’ve drawn pictures for each other, written apology notes, made the other’s bed, gotten them water, but mostly, Mason used to ask Michael to play a game with him that Michael didn’t care to play much. But because we are so committed to the process, Michael did it without a second thought. His internal dialogue may have gone something like, “I said something hurtful to Mason and this is what I’m going to do to make it up to him.”
Children will tend to do these steps a bit more simply, but it’s so powerful to see one person hurt another, acknowledge their action, apologize for it, restore the broken energy, and then move on to the next thing with full peace.
I suspect my two boys will be life-long partners and this apology process will most definitely be part of that strong bond.
Now you have it, an apology process that is robust, effective, and proven. I hope you commit to it at least once and find that it’s very freeing and connective. And then again . . . and again . . . and as needed.
Please reach out, either below or through email, with any questions, comments, victories, difficulties, etc. with this apology process. I’d love to hear from you.
Warm smiles and a grateful heart,