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4 Rules for Apologizing

DSC08232We all mess up. It’s just part of being human and connecting with other humans. So we all need to apologize once in a while. The thing is, a bad apology can be worse than no apology at all. So here are some tips on getting it right—and these also help me recognize what’s wrong if someone else’s apology feels icky.

Be clear

Name what you’re apologizing for. At the school where I work, kids are often told to apologize, but I want to make sure they understand why they’re apologizing. Do they understand what they did wrong? With adults, it can be easy to misunderstand why someone is upset. Being clear in the apology helps the listener to know that you understand what happened.

“I’m sorry that I lost my temper” or “I’m sorry that I broke your chair” are more helpful than a blanket “I’m sorry.”

Only apologize for your actions

Have you ever had someone apologize by saying, “I’m sorry you got upset?” That’s not an apology. Neither is “I’m sorry but you…” or “I’m sorry but I…” An apology is not the place for justification or blaming.

The apology is the place where you own your stuff. Many of our mistakes happen when we’re not our best selves—the apology is evidence that you recognize it wasn’t the best choice. And when it comes to owning our stuff, doesn’t matter whether the other person overreacted or baited you, the fact is that you didn’t behave as you wish you would have. Later you can think about the fact that this person baits you or otherwise doe

Commit to not doing the thing again

Many of us have known someone whose apologies don’t seem to weigh much because they do the same thing over and over again. Part of being sorry means that you are committing not to make the same mistake again. Sometimes it’s a matter of having information—“oh I thought that coffee was for the office, not your personal use”—and other times we need professional support to change our behavior. Children in particular may need instruction about this part.

Be sincere

With this one comes the image of the child, chastened by an authority figure, who looks at the floor and mumbles, “sorry” before running off. However, the adult equivalent is when someone dashes off a quick “I’m sorry” before launching into a litany of complaints an accusations. This is the child that grew up thinking that an apology was a cursory and thoughtless gesture.

Even if you meant no harm, even if your mistake was innocent and small, take a moment and reflect on the pain that was caused.

4 Rules for Apologizing

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2015). 4 Rules for Apologizing. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2015
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