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July 17, 2023

The Anatomy of Apologies

Yolande Conradie

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Have you ever been on the receiving end of an apology that felt like an insult? And have you ever received an apology that felt like soothing balm on a hurt inflicted by someone's words or actions? I've been the lucky winner of both – fortunately more of the latter than the former.

I grew up in an Afrikaans household, but my mother had many little English sayings and expressions that she unwittingly drilled into us. Two things she wouldn't tolerate were if my sister and I didn’t act in a friendly way, and if we failed to apologize when we were expected to.

In the case of us not smiling, she'd sternly say in English, "Put a smile on your face." When we didn't apologize, she'd just say, "Apologize – it takes the sting out of it." By "it" she meant the situation or conversation. And if you dared apologize with a "but" there was a risk of feeling it on your "butt" – literally!

How Not to Apologize

In the leadership module that I teach at university, we place much emphasis on the ability to apologize, because people simply don't trust leaders who can't apologize. Also, they need to apologize correctly. That implies that there's a right and a wrong way to apologize.

And in private practice, when working with couples, I've often heard one of the gripes being the way the other person apologizes. The almost standard tagline is: "If she/he says it like this, they don't mean it." (The language is usually slightly more colorful.) Or, "If they say it like that, it's not an apology."

At work, and in our personal relationships, apologies can go wrong because our tone of voice or body language conveys reluctance to apologize. Not to even mention how wrong it can go in an email! The problem with the latter is that you can't see the person or hear them – all you can go by is the words and the tone of the email. (Yes, emails do have a tone of voice.)

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Apology No-Nos and Do-Overs

While a sincere apology can repair damage to your relationships and reputation, a bad or false apology can fan the flames and do even more harm than the very thing you're apologizing for! So, here are some common apology mistakes, and how to avoid them:

Mistake 1: An apology with a "but" is not an apology – it's a justification or an explanation, and you're not likely to learn from the experience. "I'm sorry, but I was in a bad space," might sound like an apology, but it's a justification.

Instead, say, "I'm sorry for what I said/did. I was in a bad space, but that didn’t make it OK for me to put you on the receiving end. How can I make it up to you?"

Mistake 2: An apology that begins well but ends poorly is not an apology – it's often argumentative. "I'm sorry I did it. It happened because of how you spoke to me…" Can you hear the toxic cycle of a new argument being born here? I certainly can!

Instead, try: "I'm sorry I said that. Even though I didn't like your tone of voice, it wasn't necessary for me to react to it. How can we do it differently in future?" (We need to understand that it is a two-way street at times, without apportioning blame.)

Mistake 3: Then there's the old intent issue… "I'm sorry, it was never my intent to hurt you." I'm not sure what you're apologizing for if you say this. It wasn't your intent that hurt me – it was your action, and that's what you should be apologizing for. No one argued your intent.

It's more effective to say, "I'm sorry for what I did and that I caused you hurt. What can I do to make it better?"

Mistake 4: The passive–aggressive apology is particularly cruel. It may sound like this: "I'm sorry you feel that way." Here's the problem: you can't be sorry for how another person feels – it's a way of using the words "I'm sorry," but without any investment in the apology.

If you're truly sorry, say, "I'm sorry my words/actions had such an effect on you. I will be more aware of what I say and how I say it in future."

An apology needs to be sincere. It needs to show that the person apologizing is taking responsibility for what they did or said, showing remorse, and sharing how they intend to make amends going forward.

After the Apology

This might shock you: an apology is not enough. An apology is but the first step. After the apology, it's necessary to show, by how you speak and behave, that you're putting in the work to change.

An apology without change is lip service. I call it window-dressing. You want to make it look right without actually fixing it – that's a time-consuming and pointless exercise.

Being able to apologize sincerely, without getting defensive or huffy, is a sign of maturity and strength. It shows that you're not too big or important to be vulnerable, too.

So, just apologize – it'll take the sting out of it. (Thanks, Mom!)

If you liked this blog, you may be interested in the following resources:

How to Apologize
Mutual Respect
Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace
Keeping Your Word at Work
8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness

Yolande Conradie

About the Author:

Yolandé has been part of the Mind Tools team since 2008 and she uses her 20+ years of experience as a therapist, coach, facilitator, and business school lecturer to help people develop their careers and live up to their potential. She thrives on facilitating conversations designed to build bridges between people by using creative questioning and thinking techniques. You might mistake her for a city girl, but Yolandé is an honorary game ranger, loves birding, archaeology, and spending time in the African bush. Early morning runs with her rottweiler and reading (a lot) are her favorite activities. And, her neighbors will tell you that she loves the kitchen and it gives her joy to "bake" people happy. 

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