Why Some Apologies Don’t Seem To Help

Have you ever received an apology from someone but it doesn’t make things better? That may be because their apology misses the mark. What we really want from an apology is for the other person to accept our version of reality and to see the hurt that they caused and take responsibility for their words and/or actions that caused the hurt. 

Here are some examples of how an apology can miss the mark;

Some apologies skirt the issue by avoiding the responsibility or making excuses. One example of this is when the person says “I’m sorry but…” When you add on the “but” what you are really saying is that my rude behavior is understandable considering the circumstances. An example of this would be if someone said “I am really sorry for yelling at you but when you roll your eyes at my suggestion I get so angry” The words after the “but” really negates the apology and is used as a justification for the bad behavior. The person is not taking full responsibility.

An apology that puts the focus on the hurt persons feelings instead of the hurtful behavior is another way people avoid taking responsibility. An example of this might be “I’m sorry you got so upset when I borrowed your jacket without asking you. I didn’t know you were sensitive about things like that” This is not an apology that accepts responsibility for the rude behavior of taking something without asking. It really feels more like a dig at the person for being so uptight. An apology that starts with “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not going in the right direction. The focus should not be on the hurt persons feelings but on your specific behavior that caused the hurt.

An apology should not be used to get something back from the injured party like forgiveness or a change of mood. The focus should be on your behavior and not requiring something from the injured party. When a request is added to the apology it can ruin the apology. If we say, “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you that I went out with some friends last night, will you forgive me?” or “I’m sorry I spent so much time talking to Jim and left you out, can you put it behind you so we can have a nice time tonight?” The problem is that the request comes too quickly and the injured party may not be ready to move on and when you attach that requirement to the apology it sounds more like something for you than a gift for the other person. An apology should not ask the hurt party for anything.

Then what should an apology look like? The person apologizing should take responsibility for the behavior. The apology should be short and not go overboard and should offer some type of corrective action if possible. What I mean is that if you took the persons jacket and then lost it, it would be expected that you replace it, if possible. Also let the other person know that you will do your best to not repeat the behavior. If you can do these things the apology will be healing. 

Many of these ideas came from Dr. Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? I highly recommend it to better understand the importance of an apology and the healing a good apology can bring to your relationship. 

Written by Lisa Strong

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