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How and When Should You Say That You Are Sorry?

The fine art of apologizing.

Key points

  • Are you aware of what you are really communicating when you think you're apologizing?
  • Apologies are sometimes given as a reflexive action for a hurtful statement or behavior, with little thought about its lack of sincerity.
  • A genuine apology can require introspection of one's intent for hurting another and a true desire to amend the other's pain.

Few of us can make the claim to a life lived where we have never engaged in a wrong action or put our foot in our mouth and hurt someone’s feelings. The nature of human connections is that sometimes we slip: through our insensitive reactions, angry words, or behaviors that are rash or impulsive. In our work relationships, friendships, and close intimate relationships, if left unresolved, such events can be destructive to the relationship. In our closest relationships, such as our spouses and families, the wrong action or words tend to have a long life. Apologizing is generally positive. But not all apologies are alike.

Low-quality apologies harm rather than help

Psychologists have characterized some apologies as low-quality. Such apologies use superficial, hasty, mechanical, shallow words. These perfunctory apologies can actually worsen rather than help the situation. Take as an example phrases that are salt in a wound: “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” Or, “I’m sorry that you feel hurt.” Although the word “sorry” is prominently placed, the responsibility for the feeling is on the harmed individual. Bad apologies promise to aggravate the hurt individual and impede reconciliation.

Why would one want to issue a bad apology?

Psychologists identify several reasons for why we sometimes say the words “I’m sorry” but don’t mean them. It may reflect a low level of concern for the harmed individual (Schumann, 2018). Or it may reflect a lack of interest in preserving the relationship. A low-quality apology may be coerced. The individual may not believe that they did anything wrong but circumstances force the apology (e.g., they will be fired if they don’t apologize for their action). An apology may be viewed by the transgressor as a threat to their self-image or their sense of competence and therefore either not issued or said in a backhanded way.

A low-quality apology may be a defensive strategy. The aim is to provide relief for the transgressor, not the harmed individual. Schumann (2014) identified several defensive strategies.

  • Justification is attempting to defend one’s behavior: “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, but I did it for a good reason.”
  • Victim-blaming is another: “If you had been more sensitive to my needs, I wouldn’t have felt the need to cheat on you.”
  • Providing an excuse by trying to mitigate responsibility for the action is another: “I was overwhelmed at work and completely forgot to pick you up.”
  • Minimization, or attempting to downplay the consequences of the act: “I’m sorry if I hurt you by asking for a divorce, but our marriage has been in trouble for a long time.”

High-quality apologies repair and resolve conflict

Saying that you are sorry and meaning it constitutes an apology that is more likely to be heard by the harmed person than empty words.

But what is a good apology?

Researchers suggest that a high-quality or good apology has several elements that serve to decrease anger and increase the likelihood of forgiveness (Kirchhoff et al., 2012; Schumann, 2014). The elements constitute a comprehensive apology where the transgressor is conveying several psychologically powerful themes. The finger of blame when pointed at oneself can be remarkably powerful in quelling the hurt person’s anger.

When these elements are included in the apology, it is a message that the person is genuinely sorry and invested in repairing the harm.

  • Accepting responsibility for the action as in, “I was the one who ruined our vacation by being so controlling, I am sorry and take full responsibility.”
  • Remorse is expressed along with regret for the action as in, “I’m really sorry and I truly feel badly about lying to you.”
  • Repairing the wrong by stating so, “I’m sorry that I’ve been ignoring you and I will spend quality time with you this week.”
  • Providing an explanation, “I’m really sorry that I missed your birthday party; this isn’t an excuse but an explanation: I’ve been stressed and forgetful lately.”
  • Promising to do better next time, “I know that we agreed that I would not impulse buy; I broke that promise and I will do better the next time.”
  • Clear acknowledgment of the harm caused, “I know that my actions have caused you to understandably feel rejected and angry and I am sorry."
  • Admitting wrongdoing as in, “I was totally wrong when I let it slip to our boss that you were interviewing for other positions. I should not have done that.”

Timing matters

An apology that comes too quickly may be perceived as false. Timing therefore matters. A powerful aspect of an apology is that of asking for forgiveness; however, it is tricky and can backfire if the hurt individual is not psychologically prepared to do so (Mead, 2008). Studies in conflict resolution have shown that the hurt person’s readiness to receive an apology is key. If a person is not ready to accept the apology, and is still “smarting” from the action or remarks that have wounded them, they may feel pressured by the apology to pretend that they are no longer angry or upset.

Another aspect of how the apology will be accepted or not depends on whether the one who created the harm is spending the time to understand the harmed individual’s point of view. As in, “I know that what I just said was mean and hurtful and I’m sorry; you are justifiably angry. Are you OK talking about it now?”

Apologizing requires humility

An apology can be a powerful method toward reconciliation that can heal the hurt individual and the one who caused the hurt. However, it is a skill. It requires a willingness to humble oneself by acknowledging a mistake. The words “I’m sorry” do not magically make the hurt go away. One thing is certain: Life will offer us all the experience of regret for such actions and the opportunity for a do-over—the apology.


Bennet, M., & Earwaker, D. (1994). Victims’ responses to apologies: The effects of offender responsibility and offense severity. Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 457–464.

Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offense severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(2), 109–130.

Mead, B. G. (2008). When do we forgive? An examination of relational and apologetic factors that are influential in forgiveness with friendship relationships. Dissertation Abstracts, Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 69(2-B), 1379.

Schumann, K. (2014). An affirmed self and a better apology the effect of self-affirmation on transgressors’ response to victims. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 89-96.

Schumann, K. (2018). The psychology of offering an apology: understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(2), 74-78.

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