The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When They Apologize

An apology is a three-part process that includes: 1) Acknowledging the offense; 2) Owning and expressing regret for the offense; and 3) Asking for forgiveness. Last December, GLAMOUR Magazine writer, Suzannah Weiss, addressed the subject in an article to which I was honored to contribute. Suzannah’s article begins now . . .

 DECEMBER 7, 2016 12:00 PM

Most of us think we know how to apologize and sound sincere, but think about the last time you were on the end of a nonapology. Maybe your partner said, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” but not, “I’m sorry I did that.” Maybe it was just their tone of voice. Maybe they just weren’t looking at you when they said it. While we’d like to make everything better with a simple “sorry,” apologies are often more complicated than we give them credit for.

In fact, according to a study in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, there are six crucial elements of an apology. Most important, you have to acknowledge your responsibility for hurting someone. Second most important is that you offer to make it up to the person you’ve hurt. You should also express your regret, demonstrate an understanding of what went wrong, state your desire to repent, and ask forgiveness. Yeah, so a plain old “I apologize” won’t cut it.

That’s what makes for a good apology, but there are also lots of ways to give someone a bad one. Here are some very common mistakes people make when they’re apologizing that can actually make matters much worse.

1. Not meaning it

According to psychologist Nikki Martinez, Psy.D., one of the most common apology-related mistakes is apologizing in the first place. While it might seemconsiderate to tell your partner whatever will make them feel better, chances are they won’t feel better if you’re apologizing for that sole purpose. “Your partner knows you, and they know when you are apologizing to end an argument, not because you genuinely mean it,” she says. “Your words must match your actions to rebuild trust.”

Instead of just paying someone lip service, she suggests, listen and try to put yourself in their shoes so that your apology is genuine.

2. Trying to explain why you acted that way

There’s a very thin line between an apology and a justification. Even if we’re just trying to show someone we weren’t intending to hurt them so that they’ll feel better, it may come off as an excuse. “Avoid being overly ‘heady’ when apologizing,” says Dominick Hankle, Ph.D., marriage and family therapist and a professor of psychology at Regent University. “Rationalized apologies come across as lectures and distanced soliloquies, never reaching into the other person’s heart. You’ve hurt your partner, so they’re feeling emotional pain. You can never reason that away.” Hear that? Avoid distanced soliloquies.

3. Trying to explain what you meant to do

Apologies are often accompanied by the words, “I didn’t mean it,’ but the simple fact is that you’ve hurt the other person, regardless of whether you meant to or not. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and you have to acknowledge you’ve gone down it. Failure “to acknowledge bad impact when intention was good” does major damage to an attempted apology, says mediator and conflict-resolution expert Tammy Lenski.

4. Delivering too many of the ol’ ifs, ands, and buts

Delete if and but from your vocabulary when you’re apologizing, says Lenski. The ultimate nonapology, for example, is, “I’m sorry if you feel hurt, but she came on to me!” These apologies “put the responsibility for the hurt on the other person,” she explains. They address your partner’s feelings but not your actions and can even shame them for feeling the way they do.

5. Apologizing repeatedly for the same thing

You should always apologize for your mistakes, but after you’ve made the same mistake enough times, the apology becomes meaningless, says Linda F. Williams, M.S.W. “Apologizing means a lot less than changing the behavior,” she says. So really, your apology should last way beyond the conversation in which you say, “I’m sorry.” You should also express it in all your actions thereafter.


Suzannah Weiss


I’m a freelance writer specializing in feminist issues and sex and relationships, publishing up to 15 articles a day. I also work as a freelance editor, social media manager, and career consultant (more info on that in the next section).

I write on a daily basis for Glamour, Refinery29, and Bustle and on a regular basis for Everyday Feminism, Vice, Men’s Health, Complex, Audiofemme, MEL, Ravishly, and more. As Weekend Editor for Teen Vogue, I write around 10 stories/day, edit other stories, and post them on social media on the weekends. My articles on social justice, relationships, pop culture, science, and technology have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Salon, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Bitch, Bust, Paper Magazine, Self, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Mic, Business Insider, Yahoo, Long Island Pulse, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Alternet, xoJane, POPSUGAR, Thought Catalog, SheKnows, The Good Men Project, The Frisky, YourTango, Role/Reboot, The Freelancer, Footnote, Her Campus, and more.

I’m an author of the book Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, and I regularly make radio appearances to discuss gender, body image, social justice, and sex and relationships. But my favorite claim to fame is that Whoopi Goldberg cited one of my articles in a discussion about sex and feminism on The View.

My background in writing, editing, marketing, and communications ranges from tech startups to academic journals. Before starting my freelance career, I served as Assistant Editor for Footnote, a site that translates academic research for mainstream audiences, Editorial Assistant for the academic journal Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Content Specialist for the technology startup WibiData, and Content Writer for the technology-focused PR firm Coderella.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Neuroscience and a Bachelor of Arts in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Modern Culture & Media with honors from Brown University, where I received the Barbara Banks Brodsky Prize for Excellence in Real World Writing and the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women Undergraduate Fellowship. I’ve conducted research for Brown’s Social Cognitive Science Research Center, Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative, and Pembroke Center for Research and Teaching on Women. As a huge critical theory and science nerd, I love to communicate academic insights so clearly that people don’t even realize they’re academic.

My poems and humor writing have been featured in readings and published in journals including sPARKLE & bLINK and The East Bay Review. I taught a seminar in February 2016 on how to write a love poem.


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