This article was written by Australia Counselling member Gemma Summers.

Offering an apology to someone is one of the most powerful things we can do to heal rifts and misunderstandings in our relationships. However, it’s quite rare to receive a genuine apology, which is a pity, because it’s an exquisite relational art and social skill; a well-constructed apology is a gift that’s hard to reject.

But what makes for a good apology? And what is the true purpose of apologising?

An apology has many jobs to do. It has to heal hurts and repair damage between yourself and another. It has to restore harmony and ease tensions. And it has to show your most responsible and caring self. It has a big job to do and if done well, an apology can work wonders to mend your connections with others.

The most important thing about an apology is that it must be clean. There are no “buts” to an apology, no excuses or rationalisations. It should stand alone, uncomplicated by other messages.

We also need to offer our apology fully and freely and then wait patiently for the other person to receive it—or not. If they don’t, we can simply say we accept their feelings, but offer our apology anyway. The other person may feel like accepting it later, in the privacy of their own mind and heart, and in their own time.

An apology is a powerful act. Some people over apologise for every little thing. But this is less about offering true apology and more about fearful approval seeking. Apology should be a gift, not a grovel. It should come from a place of self-love and empowerment, not from fear or obligation.

Usually we need to work on an apology inside ourselves first, so that it’s truly effective and will get the job done. Otherwise, it’s likely our apology will fall flat and not be accepted by the other side.

When we apologise, we are acknowledging our mistakes and limits and demonstrating humility. This kind of openness and honesty is something that others appreciate enormously. Far from being a sign of weakness, a well-delivered apology is a mark of character. We are strong enough to say, “I was wrong,” or “I made a mistake,” or “You were right.”

Sometimes it’s okay to admit our mistakes in a light-hearted manner. Other times, it’s important to express regret or remorse for suffering we may have caused, even if it not intended.

The basic structure of a good apology is as follows:

  • Be clear and specific about what you are apologising for.
  • Keep it clean by not attaching other messages such as rationalisations or justifications.
  • Keep the focus on the other person, and not on yourself.
  • Say it like you mean it—with appropriate feeling and sincerity.
  • Remain quiet while the other person decides to accept your apology or not.

If they don’t accept it, ask them what they need in order to accept it. It’s usually because your apology was inadequate and didn’t get the job done. Accept the feedback and try again. If they accept your apology, thank them and finish the conversation there, giving each of you time to digest it.

Developing our skills of apology not only cares for our relationships, it also cares for our own emotional and psychological wellbeing, making us a more empowered and confident communicator and connector.

If you’re looking for a relationship or marriage counsellor, Australia Counselling has counsellors based in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Search our relationship and marriage counsellors page for a counsellor or psychologist near you.