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Here's the one word you should never use when apologizing

The ability to say you're sorry is key to any relationship. Find out why it matters and how to get it right.

Big or small, mistakes are a fact of life. Sometimes they're as minor as forgetting a lunch date. And others, like forgetting your anniversary or lashing out at a loved one are arguably harder to forgive.

That's because hurting someone, whether it's intentional or not, can lead to lasting, even irreparable damage in a relationship.

That's where heartfelt apologies come in.

“We all hurt other people just as we’re hurt by them. So, the need to give and receive apologies is with us until our very last breath,” explains Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of “Why Won’t You Apologize?"

Not everyone understands why apologizing is important, however, especially if they don't think they've done anything wrong.

“When an apology is absent or we muck it up, it can put a crack in the foundation of a relationship, or it can even end a relationship,” Lerner tells TODAY.com in a phone interview.

In fact, failing to apologize for something we’ve done, even if we don't think it's our fault, per se, can end up causing more damage than whatever we're apologizing for in the first place.

Which is why, the willingness to put “right" or “wrong" aside and simply apologize for the hurt matters so much.

“The courage to apologize and the wisdom and clarity to do it wisely and well is at the heart of everything that’s most important,” Lerner says. “It’s at the heart of parenting, leadership and friendship. It’s at the heart of our own sense of personal integrity and accountability and self-worth.”

Saying sorry isn't easy

Apologies aren't always easy. For many people, having to say sorry can trigger feelings of vulnerability or even anger.

That’s because our brains are hard-wired for defensiveness, says Lerner. And when confronted, we often end up going on the offensive instead of listening for the essence of what the hurt or angry party needs us to understand.

When we're listening defensively, Lerner says our focus tends to shift to any perceived exaggerations or inaccuracies in the conversation rather than what the issue at hand is.

Beyond that, once we're on the defensive, we often end up debating the things we don’t think are true or fair instead of earnestly listening to what the injured party has to say.

However, it's the listening part that really matters. “If only we would listen with the same passion we feel about being heard,” says Lerner.

Apologies are extremely powerful

Even when you don’t think you’ve done something “wrong,” Karina Schumann, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh tells TODAY.com that it's important to view the situation from the perspective of the person who’s been harmed or offended and then validate it.

“To hear those words of recognition that you’re aware that something has happened that’s upsetting or problematic for this person, and that you’re not making excuses for it,” can be extremely impactful, Schumann says.

So, what are the steps in delivering a heartfelt apology?

“When it’s something important, the good apology may start with ‘I’m sorry,'" says Lerner. “But it doesn’t end there."

In fact, apologizing is really just the beginning. According to Lerner and Schumann, to apologize effectively, here's what you need do.

Step 1: Listen, then listen again

Young man listening to a friend.
Manu Vega / Getty Images

A good apology starts with the willingness to listen and hear what the injured party has to say despite any objections you may have. “Sit in the hot seat and listen with an open heart to the anger of the wounded party,” Lerner suggests.

It's good to keep in mind, you may not be able to cover all the bases in a single conversation.

“If it’s a big betrayal, there’s no greater gift, or one that’s more difficult to offer, then the kind of listening where we put aside our defensiveness and listen to someone’s anger and pain when they’re accusing us of causing it,” Lerner adds.

Step 2: Take responsibility

Lerner says a good apology requires us to take “clear and direct responsibility for what we have or done or failed to say or do” without any caveats.

A “true apology does not include the word ‘but,'" she says.

According to Lerner, a good example of an apology goes like this: “I’m really sorry about what I said at the party last night. It was insensitive and uncalled for.”

It isn't a good apology if you shift the focus to the other person’s feelings or response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at the party last night.”

The kind of apology doesn’t work because there’s no accountability or ownership of the action. Instead, it puts it on the injured party.

“You don’t apologize for someone else’s feelings, which maybe implies that if they were a little tougher and they weren’t so sensitive, maybe they wouldn’t be so hurt,” Lerner says.

Step 3: Make reparations

Closeup shot of two people holding hands in comfort
Getty Images

Be sure to include a “corrective action,” which Lerner describes as something that attempts to rectify the wrong that’s been committed.

Say, for example, you receive bad service or food at a restaurant and the server says they’re sorry but fails to make up for the poor service or food in some way. “It’s a terrible business error to apologize, but not to make it right,” Lerner says.

When it comes to relationships, a corrective action might be committing to not making the same mistake again or letting it be known you intend to try and change your behavior.

This, of courses, depends on the situation at hand. In Lerner's eyes, a single “I’m sorry” probably isn’t going to cut it for big things like affairs, abuse and other toxic behaviors.

“It’s very rare to get an apology done in one conversation,” Lerner explains. And as difficult as it may be, she says it’s important to not wait for the injured person to bring up the incident again to have another conversation about it.

Instead, it can be beneficial if you suggest talking about it again.

“We always wait for the hurt party to bring it up, but an important part of reparation, when it’s something important, is to take the initiative to bring it up.”

Step 4: Allow time for forgiveness

Most problems aren't solved in a day. While you may hope that you'll be forgiven as soon as you apologize, that's not always the case.

“Some think an apology is just not enough for some types of offenses,” Schumann says. “There shouldn’t be an onus and pressure on victims to forgive immediately when they receive an apology.”

A sincere apology goes a long way in starting the healing process, but the person who's been hurt may not be quite ready to move on and require more time to sort through their feelings and needs. Which means the person apologizing should allow time and space for forgiveness to happen.

“Be ready to engage in a longer process of accountability as opposed to just thinking, ‘I’ve apologized. It’s done, the person’s going to forgive me now,’” Schumann says.

Relationship damage or the “fraying of trust in a relationship”may require a longer process of changing behaviors and rebuilding that trust, according to Schumann. “Apologies are a great starting point, but they usually require a little bit more than that.”

Step 5: Validate each other’s point of view

Finally, try to enter the conversation with an open mind and a willingness to work through the issue.

“It takes two,” Schumann says. “But one person can initiate open-minded communication where you’re not attacking the other person, attacking their character and talking about how they always do this kind of thing to you.”

Taking that approach, she says, is likely to put the other person on the defensive. “But these are the steps that can try and reduce that defensiveness and really try to promote empathy and understanding between the people involved,” Schumann says.

It’s also true that, in some cases, you may never get the apology you’re hoping for.

“People who commit serious hurt may never get to the point where they can admit to their harmful actions, much less apologize aim to repair them,” Lerner says.

The good news is that when it comes to apologies, there's no statute of limitations on saying you're sorry. “It could have been something that happened a very, very long time ago,” Lerner says, adding that it's better to apologize late than not at all.

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