At its most basic level, the purpose of a good apology is to calm and soothe the person who was hurt and repair trust.
This is more difficult than it seems. The following are 7 common ways we can sabotage apologies and ruin their effectiveness. These points have been adapted from the work of psychologist Harriet Lerner in her book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?” and can help significantly improve your ability to mend emotional rifts.
1. Adding “but” at the end of an apology
When used in an apology, “but” signals defensiveness.
“I’m sorry, but…” provides a cursory acknowledgement of the other person’s feelings and immediately labels it as less important than what you’re going to say next. Not off to a great start there.
Giving the other person some context for your behavior is fine, but that’s a different conversation. Where a genuine apology is needed, focus first on the emotional impact your behavior had on the other person, even if you didn’t intend it to have that effect.
Don’t negate the other person’s experience just because you didn’t mean for it to happen. Don’t use it as an opportunity to lecture them on how your behavior was somehow justified.
2. Saying "I'm sorry you feel that way"
A good apology focuses on your behavior, not the other person’s emotional reactions.
Incorrect: “I’m sorry you felt unimportant when I didn’t call.”
Correct: “I’m sorry I didn’t call when I said.”
This can be a tricky distinction to make.
You don’t need to apologize for the other person having difficult feelings. They are entitled to have their emotions regardless of whether you see their validity.
Apologizing for the other person having feelings communicates that they shouldn’t feel the way they do and can imply either a lack of maturity or emotional control on their part.
In some cases this can become abusive, chronically invalidating and blaming the hurt party for having the emotion. Don’t make the initial offense worse by also implying the other person’s emotional reaction to it is wrong.
3. Saying "I'm sorry if..."
“If” takes the reality of the hurt person’s experience and turns it into a hypothetical.
Incorrect: “I’m sorry if what I said hurt your feelings.”
Correct: “The comment I made was offensive. I’m sorry I was insensitive.”
Adding “if” subtly questions whether the other person was actually hurt, creating an opening for the offender to let themself off the hook if there’s a possibility that it didn’t actually happen.
This invalidates the other person by drawing into question their experience of their emotions and is called “gaslighting.”
This is psychological manipulation and abuse.
Gaslighting can lead people to not trust their reasonable emotional reactions, think they are wrong or bad for having feelings, damage their sense of self, and need to rely on others to validate their experiences.
4. Quid pro quo apologies
This is holding your apology for ransom. “I’ll apologize if you apologize.”
Apologies shouldn’t be conditional if they’re genuinely felt. If you’re only offering an apology to appease the other person and are demanding one in return, then you’ve missed the point.
If there’s a genuine apology that needs to be made, don’t make the other person have to bow to you first in order to get it.
If you’ve also been hurt, you may have a separate conversation about it when the other person is in a position to really hear you out and validate your own emotional experience.
5. “Alright, alright I'm sorry! Happy now?”
This non-apology is throwing the dog a bone – saying what you think the other person wants to hear so they’ll shut up already and get off your case.
If you’ve noticed that the other person has increased the frequency with which they pursue you about your behavior and increased the intensity of their own emotions, it’s a sign that you likely haven’t given them what they really need.
What’s missing and necessary is the patient, interested exploration of where they’re coming from, not just hearing you say the words “I’m sorry.”
This is what helps soothe hurt feelings, knowing that you’ve really heard them.
This is also why forcing children to apologize for something they don’t mean is ineffective and reinforces insincere lip service just to placate another person.
6. Insisting on forgiveness
An apology is not an automatic ticket to forgiveness.
Asking for forgiveness can be useful when it communicates a sincere repentance for wrong-doing, but it shouldn’t take precedence over the apology itself.
Saying “Please forgive me” too soon can actually subtly pressure the other person into putting their hurt feelings that still need tending to aside in order to reassure your uncomfortable feelings. It turns the hurt party into the caretaker and sends the message that “you need to get over it so I can feel better, too.”
Instead of pressuring for forgiveness, try: “I understand that what I did was serious and you might stay mad for a long time. If there’s anything I can do to make it better, please let me know.”
This will give the other person more space to come to genuine forgiveness without feeling crowded by an anxious pursuit to restore trust and balance. It will also free you from feeling on the hook endlessly waiting for forgiveness that you don’t have direct control over.
7. Not communicating steps to rectify the injury
An apology doesn’t mean much if it’s not backed up by deliberate action to make sure the regrettable incident doesn’t happen again.
That’s like apologizing for stepping on someone’s foot but still continuing to stand on it.
Following through with requests for change, as well as offering your own suggestions of what may help rectify the problem on your part, builds trust in the other person. It lets them know that you saw the significance of their experience and demonstrates that it’s important to you to create conditions where it won’t happen again.
For serious transgressions, this may take some time. But you will at least know you’re working in the right direction.
Apologies aren’t the only chance you get to address important issues, but are instead a chance to establish the ground for future communication. You create the best possible conditions for these future conversations to be productive and meaningful if you’re not caught in these 7 apology-killing patterns. It takes practice to really work out of these patterns, but it will be worth it for the greater degree of trust and closeness made possible in your relationships.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.