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How to Apologize to a Friend, According to Relationship Experts

Feeling remorseful? Heed this advice to repair your bond ASAP.

Maybe you talked about them behind their back, had to cancel plans with them one too many times, or got caught in a lie. Regardless of what you did—you're trying to figure out how to apologize to a friend. Because let's be real: Those two little words alone—"I'm sorry"—usually won't cut it.

Before you surrender to a shame spiral, experts say it's important to view this situation as an avenue for personal and relational growth. Hurting someone doesn't mean you're a bad person, and it certainly doesn't have to mean the end of your friendship—provided, of course, that you're willing to accept responsibility.

"I think more often than not, people let friendships go without attempting to lean in and grow from the conflict, says Courtnay Meletta, a licensed integrative psychotherapist and founder of Mindbody Consulting. "If a friend is upset and you feel like you have done nothing wrong, then it's an opportunity for self-reflection and examination."

A good apology can have a positive impact on trust, communication dynamics, emotional well-being, and mental health. However, knowing whether or not an apology is warranted and figuring out how to apologize can be challenging. Below, experts share tips for offering a specific, thorough, and sincere apology that acknowledges the other person's feelings—and ultimately kickstarts the repair process in your relationship.

RELATED: How to Make Friends as an Adult: 16 Steps to Follow.

How Do You Know If You Should Apologize?

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If your friend hasn't outright asked for an apology or indicated that they're upset with you, it may be a little more difficult to tell whether or not a genuine apology is warranted.

According to licensed marriage and family therapist Suzette Bray, one tell-tale sign that you may owe a friend an apology is if you notice a change in their behavior toward you. For example, they may be more irritable or seem to be withdrawing from your relationship.

You should also trust your gut instincts, says Bray. If you feel pangs of guilt or regret after an interaction with them, that's a solid indicator that you may need to express remorse to your friend.

"It often can be helpful to reflect on what it means to be a good friend or the qualities you associate with being a good friend," adds Kristin M. Papa, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist and founder of Living Openhearted Therapy and Wellness. "If you acted in a way that is not aligned with those qualities, it usually can be beneficial to apologize."

When in doubt, Bray says you can ask your friend if they feel hurt by anything you did. Papa also advises putting yourself in your friend's shoes and considering if you'd be upset.

Remember, just because you didn't intend to hurt your friend doesn't mean you shouldn't say you're sorry, points out licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Goldberg.

"Even if you believe you did nothing wrong, it's important to try to understand their perspective," she explains. "It's not always about who's right or wrong but about acknowledging the other person's feelings and letting them know that you are committed to making amends."

RELATED: 10 Red Flags Your Friend Is a Narcissist, Therapists Say.

5 Tips for Apologizing to Someone You Hurt Deeply

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1. Be specific.

As far as good apologies go, rule number one is aiming for specificity. Speaking in vague language like "I'm sorry for what happened," or "Sorry I hurt you," not only feels dismissive, but your friend may be left wondering if you actually know what you did wrong.

For example, let's say you accidentally bailed on a friend. In that case, Goldberg says an effective apology might sound like: "I'm so sorry for forgetting our plans last night. I know it makes you feel like I don't care about you, and I never want to make you feel that way."

Identifying exactly what you did wrong while expressing regret shows that you genuinely understand the impact of your actions, says Bray—which is crucial for healing.

"Being specific in your apology helps the other person feel understood and valued," adds Bray. "It also shows a commitment to addressing the particular issues that led to the conflict."

2. Actively listen.

Sincere apologies require understanding the other person's feelings. The only way to do that is to listen. Remember: There's a big difference between listening to build clarity and compassion and listening merely to craft your next response.

Invite your friend to let you know how your behavior made them feel, or how they wish you handled the situation. Make sure not to interrupt them while they're talking, says Goldberg, even if you have the urge to defend yourself. Nodding, making eye contact, and saying affirmative responses like "I see" or "Of course" are all cues that can show you're actively listening.

When they're finished, you can thank them for sharing their feelings with you.

3. Reflect back—and validate—their feelings.

The final steps in active listening are reflection and validation. Reflecting essentially means repeating back what your friend has expressed in your own words to demonstrate that you A) were paying attention and B) understood them correctly.

Here are some examples of what that might look like

  • "It sounds like you're saying that it's upsetting to you when I make judgemental comments about your partner because it puts you in an awkward position. Is that accurate?"
  • "What I'm hearing is that when I didn't include you in that party last week, it really hurt your feelings and made you wonder if I didn't value our friendship. Did I get that right?
  • "OK, it seems like what you're saying is that when I ruined that sweater you let me borrow, it made you feel like I don't care about your belongings. Is there anything you want to add or clarify?"

It's also crucial to validate their feelings, says Meletta. For instance, saying something like, "It totally makes sense why you'd feel upset by that," or "I definitely understand why that would frustrate you."

4. Ask what they need from you.

In some cases, a hurt person may just need an apology. In other cases, they may crave a hug, reassurance about your friendship, or some space from you to process their emotions and how they'd like to proceed. Sometimes, hearing that you're committed to changing your ways can help, too, says Goldberg.

The only way to know what your friend is looking for, of course, is to ask. This way, you don't have to be a mind reader—and your friend actually gets their needs met.

5. Detail what you'll do differently next time.

No successful apology comes without a clear explanation of how you'll handle things in the future.

"Let your friend know you are committed to avoiding future incidents like this—and then work hard to do so," says Bray.

For example, let's say you complained to a mutual friend about something they did. In this case, you might tell your friend that if you're ever unhappy with their actions in the future, you'll bring your issue directly to them, no matter how challenging it may feel, rather than ranting about them behind their back.

Or, if your friend feels upset because you've been neglecting to respond to their texts lately, you might promise to at least shoot them a quick text letting them know you're busy and when they can expect a more detailed reply.

"Offer to make amends in order to make up for the hurt you caused," adds Bray. "Something I teach clients is to correct—and then overcorrect. If you canceled a lunch date with your friend, make another date right away (this is the correction) and then offer to pay for the lunch (this is the overcorrection)."

RELATED: 10 Signs You're Headed for a Friend Breakup.

What Not to Do When Apologizing

Young couple or friends in argument or fight
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Don't ambush them.

Believe it or not, it is possible to apologize the wrong way. A good apology will happen on your friend's schedule and at their convenience—not yours.

"Ask your friend when is a good time to have a conversation about your friendship," advises Maletta. "Even though you may have time, space, energy—they may be in the middle of something else."

Giving them a heads-up ensures that they show up to the discussion mentally and emotionally prepared—which increases the odds that they'll be willing to hear you out.

Don't overdo it.

According to Goldberg, it is actually possible to overapologize. Whether you know it or not, blaming yourself excessively, attempting to apologize multiple times—even after your friend has already accepted things—or becoming overly emotional can put your friend in an awkward position.

"This can shift the focus away from the issue and make your friend feel the need to comfort you instead," explains Goldberg.

Don't justify.

This should probably go without saying, but you should never make excuses for your behavior while apologizing. For instance: "I'm sorry I didn't show up at your birthday celebration, but I had a lot on my plate that night."

"'I'm sorry, but…' often communicates that you're not fully accepting responsibility for your own actions," explains Papa.

In other words, it's not a real apology because it comes with a justification.

"While it might be tempting to explain your behavior, this can undermine your apology," says Bray. "Focus on acknowledging the hurt caused, not defending why you did what you did."

Don't get accusational.

Resist the urge to say things like, "I wouldn't have done that if you hadn't…" or "Well, the only reason I acted that way is because you…"

These kinds of accusation statements will only put your friend on the defensive, says Meletta, and likely escalate the conflict—which is exactly the opposite of what you're trying to do.

Here's a good rule of thumb Meletta recommends sticking to: Make statements that start with "I" instead of "you." For instance, "I'm so sorry I didn't follow through on my promise," or "I can understand why you wouldn't want to spend time with me after I lost my temper" rather than "You're unreliable too, you know," or "You always take everything so personally, I just lost my cool is all."

Don't use conditional language.

"But" isn't the only word to avoid when saying sorry—skip the word "if," too.

For example, phrases like "I'm sorry if you felt hurt," or "I'm sorry if that bothers you" can really undermine your apology and minimize their feelings, says Bray.

"That just suggests that your friend is sensitive and you did nothing wrong," she explains.

Don't rush the process.

After you say you're sorry, you may feel eager to know where you stand with your friend. But give them time to process the apology, says Bray.

"Pressuring them for forgiveness can make it seem like the apology is more about your guilt than their feelings," she explains.

Pressuring them to decide when they're ready to move forward is a selfish move, says Meletta, and will only make the situation more stressful.

Instead, let them know that they can take as much time as they need—and let them come to you when they're ready.

RELATED: I'm Sorry Quotes: 125 Ways to Apologize.

Is It Ever Too Late to Say Sorry?

Two Friends Hugging
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Whether you hurt someone's feelings yesterday, last month, or two years ago, experts agree it's never too late to say sorry. Still, it's important to keep in mind that just because you make an apology doesn't mean your friend has to forgive you.

"An apology can set the stage for a reopening of lines of communication," says Bray. "It can also demonstrate your growth and that you regret the rift, regardless of how much time has elapsed. The key is to approach the apology with sincerity and a genuine willingness to make amends, no matter the outcome."

Make sure to carefully consider your intentions if you're reaching out to make an apology after an extended period of time has passed, says Goldberg.

"If you're trying to relieve your own guilt but risk reopening old wounds for your ex-friend, it may not be appropriate," she tells Best Life. "However, in many other instances, reaching out to acknowledge past mistakes can offer closure and potentially rekindle your friendship."

Finally, says Goldberg, keep in mind that there's a chance your friend may have moved on and is unwilling to revisit an old issue—and you should emotionally prepare yourself for this possibility.

Think of an apology as a gift. You don't offer someone a present in order to receive love, affection, gratitude, or anything else in return—but rather, to make the other person feel seen, appreciated, and valued.

Rebecca Strong
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance health/wellness, lifestyle, and travel writer. Read more