I've been studying apologies—and the people who can't give them—for more than two decades. But you don't need to be an expert on the subject to recognize when a bad apology flattens you.
Here’s a list of the nine essential ingredients of a true apology. The next time you need to offer an apology—or are on the receiving end of an apology that doesn't cut it—remember these guidelines.
- A true apology does not include the word “but” (“I’m sorry, but …”). “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.
- A true apology keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at the party last night,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said at the party last night. It was insensitive and uncalled for.” Own your behavior and apologize for it, period.
- A true apology does not overdo. It stays focused on acknowledging the feelings of the hurt party without overshadowing them with your own pain or remorse.
- A true apology doesn’t get caught up in who's to blame or who "started it." Maybe you’re only 14 percent to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”
- A true apology needs to be backed by corrective action. If your sister mentions she’s paid for your last few dinners together, apologize and let her know that you plan to pay for the next few.
- A true apology requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance. Obviously, it doesn’t help to apologize with a grand flourish and then continue the very behavior you apologized for. Passionate expressions of remorse are empty if you don’t put sincere effort into ensuring that there is no repeat performance.
- A true apology should not serve to silence another person (“I said I’m sorry at least 10 times, so why are you still bringing up the affair?”). Nor should an apology be used as a quick way out to get yourself out of a difficult conversation or dispute.
- A true apology should not be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. Not all apologies are welcome. Making amends may be part of your healing process, but find another way to heal if the other person doesn’t want to hear from you.
- A true apology recognizes when “I’m sorry” is not enough. A serious hurt or betrayal requires repair work over time to restore trust.