How To Make An Award Winning No-Holds-Barred Apology

Knowing the secrets of a really good apology can mean the difference between this:


And this:


Most of us learned to apologize back when we were in preschool and as far as I can tell, few people have upgraded their approach since then.

Remember the drill?

You whacked some girl with your shovel or you yanked the cat’s tail and before you had time to enjoy what you’d done some looming grown-up was pressuring you to say you were sorry. So you took a deep breath and, contrite or not, you managed to squeak out a barely audible “sorry.”

With that, thank goodness, the ordeal was over.

An apology like this is lacking, well… just about everything that a Class-A apology needs.

An apology is worth very little if it’s been extracted, rather than given. If your M.O. is to “demand” an apology, rethink your strategy. A well-executed, sincere apology feels like a gift to the receiver. Once you’ve experienced the real thing, you’ll clearly know the difference.

Worse still is an apology that is an attack or a criticism in disguise. Here are some common apology blunders to eliminate from your repertoire:

“I’m sorry you took what I said the wrong way.”not cool gesture

“I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive.”

“I’m sorry if…”

“I’m sorry that it pissed you off when I did the thing you always do.”

“You want an apology? Fine, here’s an apology.”

Any of these moves sound familiar? If so, I bet you aren’t winning rave reviews for your effort.

Ready for an alternative?

Step 1- Mean what you say

The key ingredient to making a truly standout apology is that you actually have to be sorry. This is essential.

You may not have been sorry for stealing your sister’s cupcake when you were six. But by the time you’re, say,  forty-six, if you forgot to pick your daughter up from her saxophone lesson or you didn’t close the sunroof and the car is knee-deep in rain, unless you’re a sociopath, chances are you feel sorry and you’re ready to say so.

Step 2-  Articulate exactly what it is that you’re sorry for

“I’m sorry I left the cat door unlocked… I overspent at Nordstrom’s… I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning… I drank too much at your office party… I made a joke that embarrassed you.”

I’m not suggesting that you have to wear a hair shirt or fall on your knees. I’m simply suggesting that you look yourself in the eye and be prepared to admit what you’ve done.

Step 3- Self-reflect

A slightly better-than-average apology is consists of Steps 1 and 2, but if you’re going for the gold, you’ll have to do some soul-searching about what led to your misstep in the first place.

One client I worked with refused to keep a calendar, insisting he didn’t need one. Yet, time and again, he missed important meetings, iStock_000027176156XSmallespecially with his partner. His new and improved apology included an admission of being both dishonest with himself about his imperfect memory and inconsiderate of the impact that his self-deception had on others.

Another client who was consistently late, admitted that she felt entitled to have her lateness overlooked because she was such a kind and generous mother. This, she said sheepishly, had prevented her from making any apology at all.

Step 4- Seek ways to improve your performance. 

Even the most heartfelt and thorough apology isn’t worth much if you turn right around and do the exact same thing again. A winning apology includes a commitment to change.

Sounds difficult? Consider this. We all make mistakes, but here’s no reason for your apology to be an additional one.

Why not give it a try? I’d love to hear how it goes.


If you found this article helpful, please share it with others!

Next week I’ll be talking about the logical companion to apology: forgiveness. To receive posts by email, use the sign-up button.

17 thoughts on “How To Make An Award Winning No-Holds-Barred Apology

  1. Winifred,

    Enjoyed this excellent post, and the doghouse image made me laugh. Yes, a sincere apology for a genuine omission or commission works wonder. Great advice.

    I would also add that we should reconcile this with the concept of unconditional love. For example, if we have an absent minded spouse, then we must accept this, and learn to deal with it while still loving them.


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  9. Hi Winifred
    I love your posts: grounded, articulate, witty, concise, compassionate … thank you.
    Have you written an article that gives advice for someone who has a spouse who believes that he never needs to apologise as he has never, ever, been wrong.
    I’d love to read it.


    • I’m glad you’ve found my posts helpful.

      I haven’t written a post about what to do when your spouse thinks he’s never wrong. I’ve written a whole book!

      Unfortunately, it’s not going to help you now since it’s coming out in the end of this year.

      Without enough context this might not make sense but here’s my best advice: don’t freak out just because he’s got an issue about needing to be flawless or just needing not to be seen as the wrongdoer. It’s about him, not,you.

      Yes it’s annoying (even infuriating) but I promise, you’re not the only imperfect one in the marriage. No one is as pure as the driven snow. But insisting he own up to his errors isn’t going to get you anywhere. (You know that already.)

      Go ahead and apologize for your own missteps. Do it well and do it once. Sometimes reluctant apologizers are also lousy forgivers so your apologies may not be accepted even when they’re sincere. Avoid that trap.

      Just curious — does he show that he’s sorry in any way, maybe non-verbal?

      As I said, there’s a whole book about this on its way.



      • Wow! I never expected to get a reply from you personally … let alone on NYE! I am deeply touched. Thank you.

        I will be pre-ordering your book!

        After a row, he is definitely more attentive. I’d never considered that to be an alternative apology, but I see that it probably is!

        I will make a great effort to stop trying to extract an apology or admission of ‘guilt’.

        Thank you again & happy new year.

        With warm regards Kate x

        Sent from my iPhone



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