Why Do Apologies Fail?

“I am sorry”. Three very powerful words, all three wisely and commonly recommended. They can be difficult to say but nice to hear. But the well-intended apology is not fail-proof. In fact, it rarely gets the desired results of a huge genuine thank you, a hug, a “oh that was so nice of you, Excellent! good, let’s move on”. No, it is more common to be followed by a passive silence, LONG silence. Leaving you wondering if they were awestruck or just hemorrhaged. The apology can also be followed by an aggressive “What! You think those cheap three words that you always use will satisfy me, well you are CRAZY!’ It could also be followed by them stomping off, crying or the passive cold, hard stare.

“What went wrong? How can I fix this? I meant well” … Here are some tips. First your intention and sincerity, even if it was 100 percent, has absolutely nothing to do with it. Offering a peace offering to someone who is psychologically charged is largely doomed to failure. The physiology or arousal will require a minimum of 45 minutes to settle, doing it perfectly before the offended can be “rational” enough to receive, process, file and respond appropriately. Again, that is if all the stars and planets line up (hunger, thirst, sleep, hormones, pre-stress factors, circumstances, the sender having perfect body language, blood sugar levels, prior experience with apologies – and many more factors).

So why Bother? It is still the right thing to do. It is wise, however, to eliminate any expectation of a favorable response. Besides, your apology is to be UNconditional – regardless of how it is received.
Second reason it failed? There is a reasonable chance you ended the “I’m sorry” with a “but”. Qualified apologies just don’t cut it. Even saying “I’m sorry I did X but I thought you Y. Y has no value, perhaps in the debrief the day later but in that moment of the apology it has no bearing.

Third reason is you may have made a more grievous error of saying, “I’m sorry you feel this way. You took it wrong; you just didn’t X”. The worst is “I’m sorry, but you did the same last week”. The genuine apology can only refer to you not them. Remember “I” statements.

Lastly, there is an inverse relationship between being convinced you are right or faultless and the effectiveness of the apology. If people estimate that you think you are still right, the apology will be rejected. The more you think you were right, the more your apology will be regarded as synthetic – “faux leather”. And this air of “right” will be detected, guaranteed.