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The Non-Apology Apology

Not all apologies are sincere. People don't always mean what they say.

I had an experience at work recently in which someone did something that they shouldn’t have done. Not an uncommon occurrence, I know, but this episode was particularly offensive. Later that day, I was told that this person “felt bad.” At first this sounded like the beginning of an apology, but it wasn’t.

What I realized in that moment is that when someone says that they “feel bad” what they really mean is that they’re uncomfortable because you’re upset. Wanting to ease guilt and discomfort is not the same thing as wanting to apologize. Genuine apologies have three parts.

Apology Step 1: I acknowledge that what I did was wrong.

None of us can be sorry for something that we don’t understand or won’t admit to. An effective apology must start with an admission that what we did, our behavior, was wrong. We must make it clear that we fully understand not only why the other person is upset but also the role we played in upsetting them. How many times have you have heard the “I’m sorry you’re upset” apology? Or the “I’m sorry that you took it that way”? Infuriating and insulting. If you can’t take responsibility, better to say nothing at all.

Apology Step 2: I am taking steps to correct the situation.

A true apology comes with an attempt to correct the situation. Think about a car accident. The only reason that people aren’t fighting in the streets is because they know that there will be an attempt to repair the damage that was done. The same thing applies in our personal relationships. If you think your words will be enough, they very likely won’t be. People want to see that we are taking the situation seriously, and that means taking action.

Apology Step 3: I commit to avoiding this behavior in the future.

This last step is the one that is usually missing. If someone apologizes, but doesn’t change their behavior, then they weren’t truly sorry.

Here’s a simple example: Anne, I apologize that I didn’t include you on that e-mail about the new marketing campaign. I understand that you need that information to get your work done and not having it made things difficult for you. I’m going to send out a revised message to the group and add you to my distribution list so that you don’t miss anything going forward. 

If there aren’t three parts in the apology, ask yourself if the person is truly contrite about what they have done. Perhaps they actually “feel bad” because they personally are uncomfortable and embarrassed. If someone is just trying to assuage their own guilt, don’t feel obligated to let them off the hook. You can professionally acknowledge what’s been said and move on without letting them believe that what they have done is acceptable to you. After all, people usually treat us how we let them treat us.


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