Why a Bad Apology is Worse than No Apology & Quick Guide to a Great Apology

Aug 01, 2023


Ever wondered why a bad apology somehow makes things even worse? 
Want to know what makes a great apology? Great! Give me 4-ish minutes and you'll be an expert in both.

But first, is apologizing really that important?

Let's be honest. Some people are terrible at it. They don't do it because it makes them feel weak (or at least they think it makes them appear weak). They worry it will tarnish their reputation, lower their social status, or be shunned by the group. But in reality their display of lack of empathy is what disconnects them from others. Ironically, not apologizing correctly is what brings on the very things they fear about apologizing. 

They fear negative consequences, but their lack of self awareness and personal responsibility is what makes them appear incompetent and un-trustworthy.

There are thousands of examples of terrible apologies, but the one thing they all share in common is that the person giving it doesn't take responsibility

"I'm sorry that you..."
"I'm sorry if..."
"I'm sorry but..."
"I was just..."
"I regret..."
"I apologize if..."
(and my personal favorite from Timmy Failure "Mistakes were made.")

On the contrary, a successful apology can bring people closer together, and improve their standing with the receiver and other witnesses. 

So YES! Yes it is important! 

A real apology has power. Apologies are evidence of a society that honors other people's experiences, thoughts, and feelings as something important. Apologizing well shows wisdom and honor. And the aftermath of a good apology can improve the lives and spirits of everyone it touches.

So without further ado, here are the core fundamentals on HOW to give a great apology-


Anatomy of a Good Apology:

1. Say you're sorry.

2. For what you did.

3. Show you understand why it was bad, and how it impacted them.

3 1/2. (If necessary explain what happened, but DON'T make excuses)

4. Explain what you'll do to keep it from happening again.

5. Fix it. (or at least try to) 

6. Listen and Learn.


Let's unpack this.

First,  Say "I apologize" or "I'm sorry." Say it. Say those words. Not "I regret"  or "I'm sorry but, ..." This is the first step in taking ownership. It's admitting that you did something you need to apologize for. 

Second, Say what you're sorry for. Specify! Name the thing you did that your apologizing for. This is important. This is how you truly own it. Apologize for what you did, not for how the other person feels about it. That's an important distinction. "I'm sorry you feel that way" isn't taking ownership. It may not be completely your fault. But how you feel is for a later discussion and not a part of a good apology. 

Third, Show you understand why what you did was wrong. That you understand the impact. That you acknowledge the effects. Specifying what you are apologizing for and then the ramifications (the consequences, how it made them feel, etc.) signifies that you understand what it is you did wrong, and are taking ownership of it. Remember, the apology is not about you and your feelings. When I say you should understand the impact, I mean the impact on the other person. 

Three and 1/2- Explain why it (whatever it is) happened. (BUT IF, AND ONLY IF NECESSARY)  Sometimes an explanation is helpful. Sometimes people need an explanation to make sense of things. But focus hard on not letting an explanation drift into an excuse. "I didn't mean to!" is an excuse. If I was late to pick you up because I was the key witness to the bus catching fire in front of me, that's an explanation. If I was late because I was caught up in the game, that's an excuse. 

Fourth, Explain how you'll keep it from happening again. Sometimes this is easy. (e.g. I promise to set an alarm on my phone so I don't forget next time) But sometimes this can be tricky... Often the things we need to apologize for are behaviors we repeatedly struggle with. (e.g. I'm sorry I yelled at you, again...) This takes real humility and understanding of the "problem" (AKA what you did wrong and why it was wrong of you to do it) in order to start to address how you'll keep it from happening again. I suggest that in systemic struggles you do some real soul searching on things you can to do to try and learn/overcome these challenges. One thing that has helped me is to spend time really thinking about (journaling, researching/learning, asking God to help you see things more clearly) how this impacts the other person, and what the true "consequences" of your actions are. More than a few of us have awakened to the realization that our anger or attitude has caused more impact than we realized. This can be a very powerful motivator to change. But I digress.

Fifth, Offer to make up for what you did. Try and fix it. Make reparations. Do your utmost best to repair what has been broken. Whether that's trust, feelings, or your brother's Lego tower. Do all you can to fix it. 

Sixth, Listen. Let them say whatever it is they want to say. Don't interrupt; do not protest. Just listen. It's been said that the highest form of knowledge is empathy. It takes real flexing of our mental and emotional muscles to stand in someone else's shoes, and see through their eyes. (to see ourselves and what we've done through someone else's eyes) It's hard, but life changing. It builds uncommon character. It builds uncommon trustworthiness. It's human nature to sometimes disappoint and fall short, (maybe even spectacularly at times) but saying you're sorry and doing it well has near-miraculous, super heroic power to heal.


Clearly, not every step is needed in every apology. But never skip steps one and two. Always say you're sorry and what you're sorry for. 


Many people list asking for forgiveness as the last step. I don't agree. You don't get to ask the person you've harmed to make you feel better. Apologies aren't negotiations. If you've done something wrong then you should feel remorse and try to make amends. Hopefully they do forgive you. If you've apologized correctly and truly do feel remorse and are trying to make it better, I think you have a high (very high) chance or receiving that gift. But asking for forgiveness is just like an excuse, it doesn't belong in a good apology.  


Now you know how to give a world class apology!


Now when you see others "apologizing" you can dissect if it's a good one or just a bad PR stunt. (I put that in quotes because often an "apology" is anything BUT a real apology.)

Want to remember how to give the perfect apology anytime you need it? Download your free perfect apology reference sheet and quick guide here

Lastly, if you'd like to dive into this even more, check out Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies as well as their website sorrywatch.com, to learn more.

UPDATE 8.24.23: Now we have a podcast episode you can listen to on this same topic #115: How to Give Great Apologies Every Time: The 6.5 Step Formula

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