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6 Things Not to Do During an Apology

Many apologies go nowhere, because of some simple missteps.

Key points

  • Some people apologize in ways that do more harm than good.
  • Apologies can be ineffective or hurtful if the person ignores the reason the conflict occurred or adds conditions that negate the apology.
  • When apologizing, people shouldn’t expect anything in return, ignore the other person’s feelings, or promise changes they can't deliver.

Apologizing is something that we are taught to do from the time that we are very young, and often it's thought of as a pill to be swallowed rather than an opportunity to make meaningful changes in our relationships. As adults, we may carry some of the same negative associations or bad habits with apologizing that we picked up on the playground, and in fact, some of us make a point never to apologize at all.

But many of us end up apologizing in a way that sabotages ourselves, or further hurts the people that we are apologizing to—to the point that we might do more harm than good. Here are some ways that a good apology can turn dysfunctional. The more mindful you can be in the process of making amends, the more meaningful your words can be—and the more difference they can make.

1. Re-trying your case

An apology is not a time to try yet again to make your point or justify your behavior or imply that the other person deserved it. If you still feel the need to do that, it's time for a different type of conversation—one that isn't framed as your apology. Instead, a genuine apology takes ownership of the negative effect that your behavior had on someone else, full stop. When you tack "but I was just trying to...." on to an apology, it sounds like you're not really sorry at all, but rather that you are simply looking to reopen a discussion that justifies why you did what you did—and try your case in front of a "judge" once more.

2. Promising something you can't deliver

When people feel that they have really dug themselves into a hole with their behavior, they may be willing to say anything in order to get out of that hole. This often includes grandiose promises about behavior change, and unrealistic pronouncements about what they will or won't do in the future. The truth is, if you promise something that you'll just go back on, then that is likely more damaging to trust than had you never promised it at all. And you'll be back in the same situation, needing to apologize once more—only with your words meaning even less than they did before. Instead, be realistic about your offer, and put forth the effort to truly try to do something differently.

3. Ignoring the reason the problem happened in the first place

As many couples therapists will tell you, the best apology is a true change in behavior. If your apology doesn't make room for an understanding of what led to the problematic action in the first place, and makes zero attempt to address it, then it is just words. In fact, many of us become conditioned to use 'I'm sorry" as a get-out-of-jail card in order to simply go on our merry way once more, having learned nothing. If you're truly sorry, it means that you're reckoning with the fact that you need to not make the same mistake again—and you must understand how to make that happen.

4. Adding conditions that negate the apology

It's become almost a cliche, the "I'm sorry, but" that practically presses an "undo" button on what you were trying to say. Or the "I'm sorry if you took my words wrong," which immediately implies that the other person is to blame for their reaction. Now, it's realistic that apologies sometimes warrant further discussion, and they may feel like they need to have an asterisk. But go ahead and have that more nuanced discussion before trying to formulate your true apology. Having a premature apology that spouts off so many conditions that it doesn't feel real just shuts down the conversation—and will make your apology go unheard.

5. Expecting something in return

If you've spent any time around kids, you've probably seen it: "Okay, I'm sorry. NOW can I get my ice cream?" Checking the box of the apology with a clear agenda in order to get what you want—or, similarly, to force the other person to apologize, or to accept your apology—makes your own apology ring hollow. Of course, in many conflicts, it's natural for you to be hoping to receive an apology as well. But try as much as possible to separate your own apology from that condition. If you're truly sorry, it shouldn't be contingent on what you will receive in the future.

6. Ignoring the other person's feelings

Some people are very quick to apologize, because they hope that they can just move on from the discomfort of someone being upset with them. But sometimes, the person on the receiving end doesn't yet want to move on, or may not be ready to hear an apology. Keep in mind that an apology needs to work first and foremost for the person who is receiving it. If you ignore the fact that the person doesn't want to hear from you yet, or isn't yet ready to talk about what happened, or may not be ready to forgive you, then you are making your apology about only yourself. Moreover, you should always make sure that your apology incorporates an understanding of the emotional effects that the other person experienced—which will help them feel understood and validated. So, don't apologize simply for your actions, but because you understand—fully and empathetically—the effects of them.