I hadn't seen my aunt in 20 years. I had lived a full life, written a book and had a baby, but as she stared at my bottom, I knew what she was thinking. She deftly managed to insult both my cousin and me when she said "Are you competing with Mary?". You have got as fat as her.

I told my aunt how insulted I was, if she chose to take. If rendered the apology void immediately.

I came from a family who mostly can't and don't apologize, so expecting any apology was ambitious. The idea is that if you don't say sorry, did it actually happen? I have always been confused by the English maxim "never apologise never explain", which is supposedly a sign of status. I've had a lifelong fascination with apologies, and a lot of them, including my own, are sometimes lacking. Why is this happening? It's hard to say sorry.

There are different types of apology. The British apologized for someone else's misdemeanour, like when they bumped into you. We say a lot of silly sorrys. I'm sorry to hear that, or I'm sorry to sympathize: that sounds hard.

Sorry cartoon

Illustration: Igor Bastidas/The Guardian

When we realise we have done wrong and want to make amends, the sorry is what matters. This is not easy. Teaching children to say sorry is not a robust parenting tool because it requires more than just a few words. A good apology requires authenticity, recognition, empathy, ability to take responsibility, and a good dose of vulnerability and humble pie. It's a grownups word, yet few grownups use it well.

There’s the very British sorry for someone else’s misdemeanour, like when someone has stood on your toe

Alison Roy said that if it lacks these things, it doesn't. We feel short-changed after an apology, especially an official one, because we were wronged with the original fault and again in the supposed apology. We can end up feeling manipulated. Corporate-speak is so clever that we never feel sorry for ourselves. I'm looking at you.

Roy said an apology has to be meaningful if anyone, but especially children, is going to understand it. It's quite sophisticated to cope with feelings of shame and being flawed. We can expect our children to understand by giving them a word, because these are not easy emotions and experiences. We have to model it for them.

We need to practice what we preach. It's important to start with children because most of us don't learn to say sorry until we're older. It is either modelled well or not. It leaves us feeling wretched, and we resolve to do better, if we learn to say sorry without thought. There is no reflection. This often leads to an apology with no change in behavior. It's never good to force a child to say sorry to an audience without first finding out what happened.

I once taught a writing workshop. The class fell silent when I said I was so sorry. Adults expect us to say sorry but they never do.

Saying ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ is not a genuine apology. It’s putting it the blame back on the wronged person
Gabrielle Rifkind, psychotherapist

You have to listen to the debates in parliament to hear the good and bad. In the past year, there have been 1,832 from both houses. Boris Johnson uses good phrases such as "I take full responsibility" and "I apologize more than people think", and he does apologize, but most of these are just words. I wonder how Johnson was taught to apologize.

It is shocking how many of these apologies try to shift the real responsibility. I apologize if you took offence, and I'm sorry if you feel that way. They are everywhere. Hansard apologized to the Baroness, but is that really being sorry?

It is the worst kind of apology, according to Rifkind. It's not taking responsibility for your actions, it's putting the blame back to the person.

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Rifkind gave me a great tip about building bridges. It involved starting with words to the effect of: "You really matter to me and I want to work out what has gone wrong, so I'm going to do nothing but listen to you for the next 15 minutes." It's seductive, isn't it? I don't think I would need an apology with that type of starter.

Fear and shame are enemies of a confident apology. To bloom, apologies need to be safe and understood. We don't want to hurt our relationship, our job or our money so we don't have safety. If there is an accident, don't admit fault, even if it is your fault.

Stephen Blumenthal thinks that authentic apologies are more likely in horizontal, more democratic relationships than in a more vertical relationship. It's because they fear being ratted out that siblings and co-workers are more likely to admit wrongdoing to each other.

He said that he wasemanates from a place of wanting to care for the other person and not shame them. We live in a culture of inquisition, more concerned with identifying a person with an action than inquiring about what went wrong or why.

Some people think it's a sign of power to not say sorry. The inverse is true. A good apology, confidently delivered, was like having a power source. Even something short like "I got it wrong" can be potent and calming. If you want to go longer, I'm very sorry. I made a mistake. It won't happen again. What can I do to make it better for you? The use of the word "I" and the word "you" is only used in terms of needs. If you shift the blame, it isn't an apology.

Louise Mensch apologized for her actions in 2011. She owned her behavior and apologized, but stopped any further discussion. She was accused of taking drugs, being drunk and dancing with a famous violinist by an investigative journalist. It was done to humiliate her. She published the email, saying that the incident sounded highly probable and that she was pretty sure it was not the only incident of the kind. She apologized to the journalists who were forced to watch her dance. A little bit of humor did her no harm, but the power was in her own hands, and she didn't have to worry about anything else.

Thank-yous are similar to apologies. Both are small but powerful. If you use them with meaning, they can deliver a lot of grace and joy, but they can also deliver a lot of misery and hurt.

It can feel hard to accept an apology that comes too late or is too small. If you want to know if it's the beginning of a bigger discussion, you should ask yourself if it's the end of something. It may be necessary for time to heal. Can it start without apology? I don't think so.

I'm writing children's books. One is about saying sorry and the main character is afraid that they will lose themselves if they say sorry every time. We grow, the other person grows, and so does the connection between us.

The second series of the Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri is out.