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5 Ways to Ruin a Good Apology

Avoid these common mistakes for best results.

Lightfield Studios/Getty Images Pro
Source: Lightfield Studios/Getty Images Pro

You're a good egg, and you mean well. So you like to apologize when you make a mistake and accidentally hurt someone's feelings.

If you've ever apologized to a friend or family member for your part in a bad interaction, but the apology didn’t melt the ice, it may be because the wording of the apology itself was off.

Here are five things people commonly say or do that instantly ruin an apology.

1. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is a popular but totally ineffective statement that should never be part of any apology. It expresses zero accountability on your part, which the recipient is guaranteed to find annoying.

What you’re really saying here is, “It’s regrettable that you’re choosing to take this the wrong way.” Even if you’re right that they’re misinterpreting what happened, explaining that they’re wrong is not the key to anyone’s heart.

2. “I’m sorry you believe/think that…” This is not an apology. Just like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” it’s an assertion that the other person is wrong in their thinking.

Any apology that begins with the words, “I’m sorry you …” is already off track. Unless what you’re saying is, “I’m sorry you had to put up with my …”

It’s appropriate to apologize for your own words or behavior. What did you do, or fail to do, that was hurtful? What did you say or fail to say that you regret?

3. “I’m sorry I did X, but…” As soon as you say “but,” you’re negating the entire apology (e.g., “I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the dinner, but you didn’t invite me to your wedding”). What you’re really saying is, “My actions were justified.”

That may be true, but an apology is not the right place to say it. Start with an unqualified apology: “I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the dinner. I know that was hurtful, and I apologize for leaving you out.”

The other person needs to know that you understand how and why they were hurt. Once you’ve succeeded in conveying that, they might show some curiosity about your motives.

If they don’t, you can share using I-statements. For example: “This might seem petty, but I was hurt when you didn’t invite me to your wedding.”

Ironically, such sharing could elicit an explanation instead of the apology you're looking for yourself.

Going back and forth, justifying hurtful behavior, instead of just exchanging apologies, sends many a relationship off the rails. Somebody has to be the first to offer an unqualified mea culpa .

4. “I’m not perfect.” This comes from a good place. You want to show accountability. But it’s not specific enough. What did you say or do that was hurtful?

It’s also a little insulting to suggest that the other person is upset because you’re not perfect. Nobody needs you to be perfect; that’s not why they’re hurt or angry. Instead of global statements like this (or, “I screwed up”), apologize for specific things.

5. You show a lack of remorse. You can say all the right words, but if you’re not truly sorry, your apology probably won’t come across as sincere.

Find a way to step into the other person’s shoes long enough to be able to appreciate the harm that was done, from their point of view. Even if you didn’t mean to hurt them, you could still find compassion for the fact that they were hurt.

A good apology is your best bet for repairing and strengthening any relationship that needs some TLC. Good luck.