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When We Don’t Apologize

Saying I’m sorry takes strength and it helps to have a good dose of empathy.

 E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

Mistakes happen. At some point we all have said something we regret, or done something we wish we hadn’t, or didn’t do something we wish we had. We hurt people’s feelings. We have also been on the receiving end of those hurt feelings. Someone said or did something that made us feel mistreated and wronged. When nothing is said or done to acknowledge that mistake we are left with those hurt feelings.

Apologies matter

A lot of different emotions are involved when we are mistreated or when we realize we have mistreated someone else. How do we get past these mistakes, and how do we move on in ways that repair the damage? Apologizing is one important way. And empathy can play a big part in helping us to apologize.

What happens when we apologize? When we tell someone we are sorry for something we said or did, we:

  • acknowledge that we behaved badly or made a mistake.
  • take responsibility for our actions.
  • validate the other person’s feelings.
  • communicate that our relationship is important enough to repair.
  • rebuild trust that was broken.

Empathy helps us apologize

These messages are communicated with the help of empathy. It takes empathy to see the impact of our actions on others, that is, to see how what we do affects others. It takes empathy to feel what another is feeling. It takes empathy to be connected deeply enough to another person to recognize how important they are to us. It takes empathy to feel the hurt that you may have caused in another.

We need to step outside of our own feelings to experience how someone else may feel. In that moment, we can realize that hearing our words or feeling our actions as if we are the other person may be painful or demeaning or insensitive. Sharing feelings with another person shows them that you care, that you want to understand better. We use empathy to acknowledge and understand our wrongdoing, validate another person, and take the time and responsibility to repair the damage we have done.

Even when we apologize for things we did not do or have no control over, we can show empathy that can build trust.1 “I’m so sorry you are having a bad day” lets people know that you understand how they are feeling, even if there is nothing you did or can do to change the situation.

Apologies need to be sincere and genuine

Not all apologies are the same. When we feel that the apology is forced, or done to look good, we don’t feel it is genuine.2 In those instances, it does not have the power to validate others and rebuild trust. And it does not show empathy. When we apologize because it will make us look caring, we are doing it for ourselves. We are not stepping into the shoes of another, we are only thinking about ourselves. Empathy requires us to step out of our own experiences and consider the experiences of others.

Group apologies can restore social trust

What about group apologies? Can we use social empathy, the skills to understand the lived experiences of different groups and cultures, to see how they have been wronged and mistreated? Yes, and we have examples of that. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa held forums for perpetrators and victims to tell their stories. It was not easy and did not solve all the divisions that contributed to the violence and oppression of apartheid.3 But such public declarations worked towards validation, building trust, and even inviting forgiveness. It took our nation more than 40 years to apologize and compensate more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were imprisoned in internment camps from 1942 to 1946. We did it through a public declaration, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. These national apologies do not change the reality of what happened, but they do validate people’s lived experiences and show empathy. And with greater empathy we can rebuild trust.

So in both our personal lives and our national realm, we can use empathy to move us to understand how we may have wronged and mistreated others. Even events that happened hundreds of years ago, such as the brutality of slavery forced upon African Americans and the forced death marches used to relocate indigenous people, deserve our empathy to understand the lived experiences of those who were wronged. When we do not acknowledge those wrongs and mistreatments, however long ago, the sense of not being heard remains and we put at risk the building of trust. However, if we do that acknowledgement publicly, the generations that have followed can feel the validation that comes from a sincere and genuine apology.

Apologies validate the feelings of others. We communicate that our relationships are important enough to repair. We can rebuild broken trust. And the first step in that journey is empathy.


1. Brooks, A. W., Dai, H. & Schweitzer, M.E. (2014). I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 5 (4), 467-474.

2. Nadler, A. & Liviatan, I. (2006). Intergroup reconciliation: Effects of adversary’s expressions of empathy, responsibility, and recipients’ trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 459-470.

3. Two books that I found helpful in understanding the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa are:

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being died that night: A South African woman confronts the legacy of apartheid. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kraft, R.N. (2014). Violent accounts: Understanding the psychology of perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New York: New York University Press.

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