Don’t Ruin “I’m Sorry” With These Lame Add-Ons

The only kind of apology that works is the real kind


Shane Kinkennon

2 years ago | 3 min read

There’s just something about a genuine apology. When harm has been done, an apology heals wounds. It frees both the giver and the receiver from tension and grief. It cultivates trust, and it reenables forward progress.

Apologies certainly work on me. As a mostly reformed hot head, I get pretty fired up if I feel slighted, and I have to take care to not hold grudges. At the same time, a genuine apology defuses me quickly and without fail. Look me in the eye and offer a genuine, “I’m sorry,” and I exhale, say thanks, and move on. My spouse has come to utilize the apology quite masterfully.

On the other hand, each of us has people in our lives, at work or socially, who would walk barefoot over broken glass rather than apologize. They’ll excuse, rationalize, shift blame, or even fight … anything but verbally accept responsibility for a hurt they caused. Renee Garfinkle, PhD, explains in Psychology Today, “It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.”

Then there are the people who apologize in halfhearted ways, and that’s the subject of this article. My aversion to qualified apologies is strong. If I could wave a magic wand across the whole wide world, I’d cast a spell so that the people could never follow the words “I’m sorry” with any of these:

  1. I’m sorry IF

This one is subtly irksome. “I’m sorry if what I said upset you.” It’s cleverness is that it sounds sort of like an apology while avoiding acknowlegment that hurt was actually caused. It hints that the real problem was not the offender’s action but the receiver’s reaction. “I’m sorry if…” goes through the motions without truly accepting culpability. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t work. It’s like pouring salt on a wound. So, stop it.

2. I’m sorry YOU …

I’m amazed that otherwise smart, responsible, thoughtful adults still add this word to the phrase, “I’m sorry.” The prototype example is, “I’m sorry you are upset.” It’s like the “if” device above, but more overt and offensive because it doesn’t even pretend to own accountability.

In fact, it doesn’t sound like an apology at all. It escalates the tension, adding insult to injury. Yet amazingly, the offender somehow convinces themselves that it’s an apology they are offering. Far better to keep your mouth shut.

3. I’m sorry BUT

This is yet another apology-reducing maneuver. It sounds genuine at the outset, in that at least it avoids the above two words “if” and “you.” (Faint praise, I know.) Instead, the hat trick of “but” is that it’s the entry point for excuse-making:

>> “I’m sorry. But aren’t you being a little oversensitive?”

>> “I’m sorry. But I was just doing what the boss told me to.”

>> “I’m sorry, but I was drunk.”

When it’s time to apologize, the receiver doesn’t want to hear why you did what you did, no matter how badly you want to say it. You’ll sound like you’re making excuses to diminish your accountability. Because that’s what you’re doing. Don’t.

The “magic move”

Renowned leadership expert and author Marshall Goldsmith calls apologizing the “magic move.” In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he writes, “Try it sometime. It costs you nothing — not even your illusory pride — but the return on investment would make Warren Buffet green with envy.” Check out Goldsmith’s “apology instruction manual” in this Inc. article.

We all screw up, and sometimes we do harm to others, however inadvertent. The effect of our behavior is what matters — our intent is irrelevant. So join me in putting a stake in the heart of the qualified apology. Apologize freely and genuinely, and see your relationships flourish.

This article is also published at You can find it here.


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Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.







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