When things go wrong for someone, saying “I’m sorry” expresses your care or concern about something that is not your doing. For instance, “I’m sorry to hear that you had that terrible flu.” “I’m sorry that you had a flat tire.” Sorry can be a thoughtful acknowledgment about someone else’s misfortune.

When someone experiences a more serious problem or injury, you may offer your compassion and comfort with words and actions, such as a gentle touch. Taking time to be present and listen can be extremely comforting.

What do you do, however, when you are the cause of a problem, an accident, or a mistake, whether inadvertent or purposeful? What if you knew that something you said or did would hurt, offend or anger someone important to you and you did it anyway? A relationship, especially one of great importance to you, deserves an apology for bad behavior.

It is essential for the individual to know that you care and understand exactly how your action has affected them. Express your genuine regret and apology along with your desire to rectify the offense quickly.

For example, if you loan your car to a friend and s/he damages it by accident or carelessness, you want to hear primarily all about how and when it will be repaired. Words of sympathy, concern or regret, while important, are not the top priority. Prompt action to make things right indicates a level of accountability and respect.

Realize that, just because a mistake is accidental, it does not exempt it from affecting the relationship. Neglecting the impact on the person may be perceived as a lack of concern. The point is that the situation needs to be remedied and the way it is handled can indicate the level of caring and regard for the relationship.

Repair means to fix the damage or offense as well as to mend the relationship. Recovery may be more challenging. If trust is fractured, regaining credibility through actions and words requires a process over time. Earning trust is not an event.

Steps for true repair and recovery:

  • Give a specific apology for your behavior, even if the offense was unintentional.
  • Give an honest account of why you did what you did, whether accidental or intentional. This is critical.
  • Listen deeply to the other person in order to understand and acknowledge the true impact of your behavior.
  • Propose what you are willing and able do to repair the situation.
  • Ask for forgiveness and ability to recover. Accept the answer.

Have you ever given or needed a genuine apology? Did it work?

When parties truly desire to resolve and recover from significant damage to a relationship, it can be done with commitment and time. Transparency is essential to help clean the slate and earn trust. When you value a relationship, keep it clear of emotional debris, lingering resentments and unfinished business. Learn how to have the tough talks needed for repair and recovery. Friendship, kindness and truth are essential elements of close and intimate relationships.