Making Things Right When You Mess Up


“Good relationships are four parts liking each other and seven parts forgiveness.” Quote by Jennifer Thomas

Gary Chapman’s bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages has become a classic. To have blissful relationships, showing love is a must. To have happy friends and co-workers, showing appreciation is essential. Recently, Dr. Chapman has embraced a second necessary ingredient for healthy relationships: dealing with offenses through apologies and forgiveness. Whether in family relationships, friendships, or the workplace, love languages and apology languages are two practical tools for cementing your relationships.

Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are:

  • Gifts – For some people, what makes them feel most loved is to receive a gift.
  • Acts of service – Remember that for some people, actions speak louder than words.
  • Words of affirmation – Say, write, or text encouraging words to other people.
  • Quality time – This language is all about giving the other person your undivided attention.
  • Physical touch – To this person, nothing speaks more deeply than appropriate touch.

In our new book, The 5 Apology Languages, Gary Chapman and I talk about five essential parts of an apology. Our apology survey showed that the evidence of sincerity in apologies differs from person to person. For most people, receiving a sincere apology depends upon it being offered in their primary apology language. Simply put, meeting their apology expectations is what convinces them that the apology is sincere. Without it, they will hear your words but the words will sound hollow.

Here are the 5 apology languages and how you can better communicate what the person needs to hear:

Expressing Regret: “I am sorry”

  • Say how they became frustrated, how much worry, trouble, inconvenience they experienced.
  • Validation – Say how you might have felt if you were in my shoes.
  • Most people say simply, “I’m sorry.” Regret focuses on what you did or failed to do and how it affected the other person. The offended person is upset, and they want to know that you understand their pain or anger.

Accepting Responsibility: “I was wrong”

  • Offer details about what mistakes you made. Where did you go off course? How were you responsible for the problem?
  • Validate them – Say what you might have said or done to someone if they had treated your mother (or father) or son (or daughter) this way.
  • An apology has more impact when it’s specific. When we’re specific, we show the offended person that we truly understand how much we have hurt him or her. We place the focus on our action and how it affected the other person. And the more details we can give, the better.

Making Restitution: “What can I do to make it right?”

  • Words are a good start, but action is also needed. Tell them what time, money, or effort you are willing to expend to show your sincerity. Then be sure to follow through.
  • Say – We’ve got a mess to fix here. I’m going to take the lead on clearing this up today.


Planned change: “I’ll try not to do that again”

  • Clearly state how you will prevent a reoccurrence of the problem. 
  • Say – Going forward, I don’t want to end up in this uncomfortable spot with you again. Here is something I will do differently starting right now in order to prevent this from happening again. Do you need to set a reminder for yourself? Get counseling? Go to rehab? Double-check your numbers? 
  • This is not just about being more careful. Tell them how things are going to really change, specifically how you are going to be more successful (for their sake and yours) next time.

Requesting Forgiveness: “Will you please forgive me?”

  • Say – Thank you for listening to me. I’ve been taught that for some people, sincere apologies end by asking the other person for forgiveness. I hope that someday you’ll be able to forgive me/us. I hope to rebuild your trust over time so that the bad situation I created will become a distant memory for you. 

My Real Life Frustration

Last Spring, I was part of a professional team that received end-of-the-year prizes for having led focus groups. I had been told to make a selection from a consultant’s sales catalog and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my thank-you gift. The summer came and went with no delivery of my product. I began to wonder, “Where is my order”? When the end of the year came with no package, I concluded that my order was not likely to come. I actually decided at that time that it was not worth pursuing the issue with anyone. I reasoned that I had enjoyed leading the group and put the item out of my mind with the refrain, “Easy come. Easy go.”

Imagine my surprise when I received a telephone message from the consultant the next spring. She said that she had been cleaning out boxes and found my order! She closed the phone message by saying simply that she wanted to arrange to get the item to me. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised to be in the position to receive that which I had let go.

However, something was still nagging at me. I replayed her message and confirmed my suspicion: She had failed to say, “I am sorry for my mistake,” or to express any sort of regret. I would have quickly embraced such an apology. As it was, I pondered the issue in my mind long enough to write it down and to wonder how often I might do the same thing. Do I correct problems, yet not assume responsibility or express regret? The magic words “I’m sorry” would have made a difference to me.

What to Say 

Here are some phrases you may use to put meat on the bones of your apologies:

  • I’m sorry that I caused you so much frustration.
  • At the time, obviously I was not thinking very well. I never intended to hurt you, but now I can see that my words were way out of line.
  • I’m sorry that I was so insensitive.
  • I am sorry that I violated your trust. I’ve created a roadblock in our relationship that I want to remove. I understand that even after I apologize, it may take a while for you to venture down the road of trust with me again.
  • You were promised a service that we haven’t provided. I am sorry that our company clearly dropped the ball this time.

A Final Piece of Advice: Avoid Shifting Blame

My business partner blames me for everything.” Many people in our research made statements similar to this. “He apologizes, but then turns it around and blames his actions on something I did.” Any time we shift the blame to the other person, we have moved from an apology to an attack. Attacks never lead to restored trust.

making things right at work

Dr. Jennifer Thomas is a business consultant and psychologist. She gave a TEDx talk about apologies in 2015. She works as a master facilitator for The 5 Love Languages. Jennifer’s interests include improving race relations, land conservation and hiking. She is the co-author of “The 5 Apology Languages” (with Gary Chapman) and “Making Things Right at Work,” (with Gary Chapman and Paul White). Learn more at

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