“A bad apology is worse than no apology,” said Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch in a thoughtful presentation to his classes after he was told he had terminal pancreatic cancer and only a short time to live. The presentation was turned into a book, “The Last Lecture,” and became a best-seller.
Pausch, who died in 2008, believed the two worst apologies are: “I'm sorry you feel hurt by what I have done,” because you are not really making an effort to heal the wound, and “I apologize for what I did, but you also need to apologize to me for what you've done,” because you are really wanting an apology for yourself and not asking for it.
Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein listed more examples of bad apologies in an article written several months ago titled “I'm Very, Very, Very Sorry … Really?”
The Strategic Apology: “I'm sorry, let's move on.” This is said in hopes of ending a fight or as a feeble attempt to stop the other person from hurting and is not entirely sincere because you may not feel you've done anything wrong.
The Defensive Apology: “I'm sorry, but….” This is rarely effective because it is a maneuver to defend your actions, not to offer contrition.
The Contingent Apology: “I'm sorry if I've done something wrong.” Used when you don't know what you've done wrong — or you don't care — and you simply want to appease a person.
The Too-Late Apology: “I realize now that what I did was wrong.” An expression of regret that often comes days, months or years too late.
The Bully Apology: “Sorry to dump this report on you at 5 p.m.” Entirely insincere, tendered only to manipulate the recipient into some action or to serve as a band-aid on bad behavior.
Both Pausch and Bernstein believed an insincere apology is insulting while a sincere apology can strengthen relationships and heal wounds.
So what is a good apology?
I'm sorry. It was my fault. What can I do to make it right?
Charlotte Lankard is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.