The Art of the Good Apology

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 thoughts on “The Art of the Good Apology”

  1. Loved this, Rabbi Ruth….reminded me of something from about six months ago. I had fallen out with my best friend from college: something which was entirely my fault – an overreaction to being sent an email. Anyway, that was six or seven years back, at least. I’d lost her address, but knew where she worked, so I called and left a message asking if they would please pass on my email to her, so that I could explain something(didn’t want to go into personal detail with her colleagues, so didn’t explain further) and asking if she would email me, so that I could explain. I had no idea if she would, or not, but she did, rather hesitantly(not surprising)…, I could then send an email, telling her how sorry ?I was .I had overreacted, and that I understood if she would prefer to leave it at that.
    She wrote back right away….and she apologised to me, for being oversensitive( which she is, and always has been, but in this case the blame lay squarely with me, and I emphasised that)
    And we got caught up with all that’s happened in the years we’ve been out if touch….her marriage broke down, and a lot of other problems, and my husbands death and my Mums death in the fire, and several other things.
    And we have made up, and have a lovely email friendship….she understands that I have problems with telephones, and we write regularly. Im so glad we are ‘back together’ again.
    Shana to a, and thank you for your wisdom and guidance

      1. I meant to ask…..what do you think of the practice of doing the personal, general apology on Facebook? I’m not sure…..half of me thinks it’s good, but the other half feels a bit uncomfortable about it….

        1. I’m not a fan of these general apologies. They almost have to take the form of “if I have offended you…” which is a huge problem all by itself.
          Also, if I put up such a statement, I’d better be ready to take seriously every single person who approaches me with something that I have done (or allegedly done.) However, I know a number of people who do it.

          1. Thank you…..that describes how I feel Pretty well: I couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly, but that’s a very good description. My head was saying, “Well, yes, that’s a way to do it…..” but my instinct felt “off ” about it, and I couldn’t explain why. And it feels just a little bit ,”Look at me, Im doing this!”….a need to be *seen* to be going it, rather than the point of the actual exercise: sorry I can’t describe it better – went back for a snooze and am still half asleep. Not trying to criticise….just sorting out my thoughts.

            1. Our tradition discourages ostentatious piety. The Christian tradition is also wary of it. There’s a passage in the New Testament about a Pharisee who prayed very loudly, and the message is clear that that isn’t the proper way. In both traditions, it’s considered best to keep one’s piety and charitable giving low-key.

  2. This is an excellent guide, thank you.

    I read, awhile ago, this article about a teacher instituting the 4- part apology, which seems to be gathering steam in the kid world. I’d like to use it with my own nascent kid, and use it myself.

    I’m sorry for…
    This is wrong because…
    In the future, I will…
    Will you forgive me?

    [personally, I would change the last to “I hope you will forgive me” because I feel it’s manipulative to force ‘forgiveness’ on the spot with an apology, like feeding coins into a slot and getting a granola bar. Forgiveness is not instant, it requires reflection and sometimes emotional struggle, and can be cyclical and require recommitment. But stating the hope for forgiveness is a good step, and can help shape an outcome that is good for both people.]

  3. I’ve been thinking about the apology that Rabbi Freundel, the abusive mikveh filmer, finally gave. I went in thinking ‘there’s no apology you can give that can make up for the devastation you caused’ and ended up thinking that it was a shockingly good apology, at least in part because it began with that exact thought. Does it balance out what he did? Decidedly not. Do I believe he really meant it? Mm, not necessarily, but I could never know what someone else really thinks and feels.

    It makes me think about what an apology actually does. In a murder or kidnapping trial, we get angry if the perpetrator doesn’t even feel remorse. An apology clearly doesn’t fix anything, but we want and need it anyway, even if the victims reject it. There’s some deep psychological need there, for apologies.

    1. You bring up a lot of good points, superbien, and time is running out for me before Rosh HaShanah. Freundel’s case is a troubling one on many levels, as is his apology. Definitely worth pondering.

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