What makes a good apology …or a bad one?

Have you ever been in that situation where your brain wants you to say something, but your mouth won’t cooperate? That’s how I feel every time I have to apologise to my husband. We’ve been married for 17 years so I’ve had plenty of practise at saying sorry. You’d think it would get easier with time, but apparently not, at least not for me.

And in the place of genuine and good apologies, I’ve done them all. We’ve had the ‘sorry’ through gritted teeth, the ‘hands on hips’ sarcastic “Well, I’m sorry!” and worst of all, the ‘apology for your mistake’ – “I’m sorry that you failed to see how upset I was”. 

I don’t think I knew very much about apologising when Dave and I got married, I didn’t see much conflict resolution going on at home when I grew up. There were quite a lot of arguments and a lot of silences and ‘atmospheres’, but then give it a few days everyone just moved on. There may have been apologies behind closed doors, but I didn’t see them. I definitely carried around that feeling that if I don’t admit I do things wrong then maybe that will mean that I don’t. 

Over time I have finally learnt to apologise in a good way, so at least now I have a head start on actually saying it, even if I still really don’t want to. 

So, what does make a ‘proper’ apology? *Real-life example coming up. No names have been changed.*


In order to apologise properly for what you have done to upset someone, you first need to know exactly what that thing is. The only way to find that out is to listen to the person. Hear directly from them what it is about your action or your words that hurt them, and then you can apologise for the right thing. Asking a clarifying question can be very helpful to make sure you have really understood the situation: “so what you’re saying is…” [Fill in the blank with what you think you heard them say.]

Take responsibility 

Once you have listened, you can tell them exactly what you are sorry for. Throwing a ‘sorry’ in someone’s general direction, without feeling, or worse with sarcasm, can make people think that you really don’t care and compound the issue. Changing the subject quickly has a similar effect. Here’s an example of a good apology in my real-life example: “Dave, I’m really sorry that I took your keys without asking and lost them. I know you find it frustrating when I move your stuff because you can’t find it and now I can’t find them either. You must be really annoyed with me.”

No excuses

It’s so important when we apologise to just give the apology and not make excuses about why we did what we did. There are often reasons why we end up doing things that hurt those we love, but adding the list of reasons seeks to justify our actions and shows what we really think – that what we did wasn’t that bad. “Dave, I’m sorry I took your keys, but I was in such a rush and I couldn’t find mine. I had to leave and I couldn’t have done anything else really.” Justifying our actions reduces the ‘value’ of our apology for the person receiving it.

Put it right

If there are things to be done to sort the situation out, do them. Often, in the case where we are apologising for something we have said there is nothing to be done except apologise, but where we can act to fix it, that shows that we are genuine. In case you’re wondering I’ve made a mental note to cut Dave some more keys. 

Be patient 

Once we have finally managed to squeeze out our apology, it can be easy to try and move on quickly so that we don’t have to sit with the fact that we’ve done something wrong. The other person may still need to talk about how they feel about the issue. At this point, it’s important to keep listening or just give them time and not try to make it all go away.  “Ok, Ok, I’ve said sorry, stop going on about it. I don’t know what else you want from me!”

The only way ‘it can all go away’ is if the person that’s been hurt wipes the ‘guilt slate’ clean by extending forgiveness. We can’t make someone forgive, but they are more likely to offer it if we’ve apologised well and that might include asking for forgiveness. 

Apologising never gets easier for me, but over the years I have learnt there is no circumvent, there is no way around, there is no easy way out. You just have to own what you have done, you have to say sorry and it’s best to try and do it well. 

Jo Arkell, October 2019

There’s more about handling disagreements well in the Conflict Module of the Toucan App. 


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