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The 9 Rules for True Apologies

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A true apology doesn’t get caught up in who’s to blame or who “started it.”Maybe you’re only 14% to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. A true apology recognizes when “I’m sorry” is not enough.A serious hurt or betrayal requires repair work over time to restore trust.

If you want to get the apology right —or if you’re suffering from an absent or bad apology from a defensive friend or family member who hurt you– take a look at Why Won’t You Apology?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.  Your relationships will thank you in advance.

Thanks to Psychology Today for the article!

6 thoughts on “The 9 Rules for True Apologies”

  1. Is the following a wrong way or a right way please?
    All those years ago when I gave you a letter to read, I was looking for validation of my own feelings and in so doing I hurt you terribly and for that I’m so very sorry. I’m so so sorry. I hope you can forgive me?

    Is the comment on validating my own feelings wrong?

    1. Hi C Dee,
      I was looking back at the comments on this article and realized no one had responded to your valuable question. I’m sorry.
      Without know the nature of the relationship, I would say that the comment on “validating my own feelings” wasn’t wrong. You’re asking for what you need in the relationship while at the same time recognizing that your attempt to communicate that need may have hurt the other.
      I hope the person responded in a helpful way.

  2. I’m going thru a big hurt from words my sister said to me. 7/9 of the things mention is exactly how she “apologized ” to me. I wish so bad she’d understand how much she hurt me. She said she apologize (yes, with a but) and tells I have a problem with not letting go. It’s so hard to accept her apology when it’s so obvious she feels she didn’t do anything wrong.
    My question us, should I send her this article? Hoping she’ll open her eyes & heart and realize how wrong she was for what she said & did to me. ????

    1. Hi Jeannie,
      I was looking back through comments on our website and realized we hadn’t responded to you or your question. I apologize. 🙂
      I found myself wondering how your sister might respond to you giving her the article. If things are better now, she might accept the article in the spirit in which you offer it. Sometimes those we wish would apologize don’t see the need. (As you noted)

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