The Five Best Ways to Ruin an Apology

De-code the 5 signs of a relationship-busting apology in love and work.

Posted May 27, 2017

Some time back I received an apology that was so sleazy, shaming and blame-reversing that it will forever stay etched in my memory.  

I man I'll call Leon oversaw promotion for an important conference where I was to speak. The organization had a photo of me taken a generation ago, so I sent him a recent picture to use in both print and on-line promotion. When I showed up I wanted to resemble myself.

Leon posted the wrong photo on line and in the printed brochure and then failed to correct the online photo when I requested twice that he do so.

 In our final conversation--during which I felt like putting a stake through his forehead--Leon offered several “apologies” that went like this: “

I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to every detail.  I’m not perfect.” 

“I’m sorry that the photo is so important to you. I don’t think that the participants are as involved as you are in how you look.”  

And finally, “Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you.”

I would have much preferred that Leon did not apologize at all because a false, blame-reversing apology only repeats and deepens the original injury.  While I was not pleased with his combination of incompetence, disrespect, and defensiveness, I can thank him for providing a sterling example of a sleazy, blame-reversing apology:

I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to every detail.  I’m not perfect.”    Watch out for the word “but.”  This sneaky little add-on will undo the sincerity of any apology.  It doesn’t matter if what you say after the “but” is true.  It will make your apology false. Also, Leon was re-framing the issue, that is, he slid away from claiming responsibility by slightly alterning the subject.  "Perfectionism" was never the issue here.

Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you.”  A common way we ruin an apology is to basically say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  or “I’m sorry that what I said/did made you upset.”  There is no accountability here.  You’re saying in effect, “I’m sorry you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior.”  A genuine apology focuses only on our wrongdoer’s behavior and not on the other person’s response. 

Consider three more relationship-busting sorrys that you should take care to avoid.

“I apologize for yelling and now I’d like you to apologize for provoking me.”  A good apology does not bring up the other person’s crime sheet but focuses only on expressing responsibility and remorse for our part.   Save your complaints for a different conversation.

 “I apologized ten times for the affair  so please let’s drop it already.” “I’m sorry” should not be a way out of a difficult conversation, yet we reflexively use it that way when we’re under fire.  No apology will have meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the injured party’s anger and pain.

 “Oh, God, I was such a bad mother! I’ll never every forgive myself! (accompanied by handringing and tears”).  It’s important to show genuine remorse but it won’t help to act forlorn and beleaguered as if the other person had just rubbed your face in a plate of dog food, thus implying that the person you really feel sorry for is yourself.

As I explain in Why Won't You Apologize, it can be excruciatingly painful to be on the receiving end of a bad apology.  If you're the hurt party, it helps to recognizing why the apology you received just doesn't feel right.  In fact, the more you think about it, the more it leaves you feeling worse.

If  you're the one who needs to give an apology, get it right. Now that you know how to muck it up, don’t.