There is some sort of power in the written word. At least for me, it carries a bit of magic for no matter what I write, life invariably enjoys a great big belly laugh before throwing it all back into my lap. It is as if fate says, “Is that so? Well, let’s see if you really mean it.” For this reason, I have more than just a little trepidation over writing this article for I shall surely have to say “I’m sorry” in the next week.

Elton John says that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” I have a friend who disagrees with him. She thinks that “sorry” is one of the easiest things to say. After all, we say it all the time. We step on someone’s toes and we say “I’m sorry.” We break the vase and say “Sorry.” We cut someone off in traffic, “Sorry about that.” Someone dies and we offer “I’m sorry.”

It is a habit to say “sorry” very quickly when things go wrong and I’m on the fence about its use. “Sorry” can be nice simply because it offers the courtesy of acknowledgment to another person. It says, “I saw you there but didn’t see your big toe and now wish I had seen it.” But overuse can make the word ring hollow especially when “sorry” all by itself is not enough. You see, there are times when more than just a casual “I’m sorry” is required. Sometimes our behaviors really hurt others and we must make a full-blown apology. Apologies communicate that we are serious, that we understand the nature of the issue, and that we are willing to do the work to make it as right as we can.

Meaningful apologies let the other person know that we have thought about our actions and are actively trying to change a situation. It allows us to move forward and grow for, while we may not be able to change the past, we can make a better tomorrow. Apologies are important to healing for both parties. I believe there are four components of a meaningful apology.

The first component involves little talking at all. It is the act of reflection. You see, before we can really make amends, we must first understand the experience of another person as best we can. If the shoe were on the other foot, how would we feel? How would the misbehavior affect us? In essence, we must feel at least a bit of the pain that the other person feels. We must think not only about the action but how our actions affected others. This can bring empathy and emotion to the situation. Depending on the offense, this part can break our own hearts. But this important step also provides us with strong incentive for doing better in the future and changing the situation.

The second component is that of understanding ourselves. Now that we know the feelings our behaviors have created for others; it is important we examine our own behaviors. How did this happen? What led to my misbehavior? What can I learn from this experience? How can I stop it from happening again? This step requires courage and honesty and provides us with at least a first step forward.

The third part is that of acknowledgement. This involves communicating with the other person that we understand how our actions have affected them (or are at least trying to do so). Acknowledgement is essentially confession. It is humbling ourselves to acknowledge our misbehavior … and then exploring ways to move forward. It invites restitution, if that is possible, to try to set things right. Most of all, it works toward resolution by working to fix the actual problem that led to the misbehaviors in the first place.

Finally, it is important to ask for forgiveness. Depending on what has happened, forgiveness may not be the easiest thing to obtain. This is the part that we cannot control, but asking for forgiveness is important. And it is equally important to ask for forgiveness not only from the other person but from ourselves.

I suppose that is what “sorry” is all about in the end … forgiveness and a way forward and growing better as human beings.

Tina Bartleson is the executive director of the Exchange Club Family Resource Center, which provides in-home parent education and mentoring to families with children 0-12 years. She has 29 years experience working with families and may be contacted through

Recommended for you