The Perfect Apology – the ONE Word That Destroys It!

As The People Skills Coach™, I start this post with the assumption that you are willing to take ownership of the impact your actions and words have on others. You are ready to deliver the perfect apology!

Well the perfect apology is found in simple sincerity and the ONE word that destroys it is …

I am sorry IF I hurt you. IF? Do you own it or not? Do you care to rebuild my trust or not?
I am sorry IF that came across as … IF? You are aware that it came across badly so why waver?
We are sorry IF we have not met your business needs. IF? We wouldn’t be discussing it otherwise.

Your intentions don’t matter much if a team member or a customer is offended by what you have said or done. Rebuild the trust with a sincere apology as soon as you are aware of his/her reaction.

Replace IF with THAT or FOR and see the difference.
I am sorry THAT I hurt you.
I am sorry FOR the impact this had on you.
I am sorry THAT came across as …
We are sorry THAT we have not met your business needs. We will …

Why does this little change make a big difference to others? Because it is clear that you are putting their needs ahead of your pride. Simple sincerity makes for the perfect apology.

Are there are other words that destroy the perfect apology?
What apology format have you found successful?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

©2010-2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, goes far beyond etiquette and body language in her training sessions and DVDs. She delivers insights on human needs that catapult customer care and teamwork to refreshingly new heights. See this site for video footage, DVD info, workshop outlines, and other blog posts.

54 Responses to “The Perfect Apology – the ONE Word That Destroys It!”

  1. Jane Perdue says:

    Great reminder, Kate, that we need to be mindful of delivering a realio, trulio meaningful apology…not just going through the motions to be able to say we’ve apologized.

    I’m not sure there’s a “format” for a meaningful apology, maybe just a few heartfelt elements. Content, tone and delivery are key. Own up to it, don’t be defensive, be sincere, don’t rush, make eye contact.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Great post! So many things can ruin an apology from your tone to your non-verbal communication to word choice. Another word that I think ruins an apology is but. Such as, “I’m sorry but it’s really not my fault.” “I’m sorry but you are blowing this out of proportion.” Another thing to pay attention to is where you place the “you” in your apology. “I’m sorry YOU feel that way.”

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Oh Kelly — you sure hit a note with me. A person or company can lose my trust completely with “I’m sorry YOU feel that way.” Thanks for adding it to this discussion.

  3. Great stuff, Kate. That’s a “pretty big IF.” So there’s that old saying that “possession is 90% of ownership.” It seems more true that “ownership is 90% of reconciliation.” The corporations that admit and honor their pre-sale promises, post-sale, are the ones that receive repeat business from this customer.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Tristan — love your “Ownership is 90% of reconciliation” — I recommend you publish that one on Twitter with #BeOriginal hashtag — if it’s your original quote.

      Very true and I am honored that you shared that one with me and also those reading this blog.
      Warmest wishes,

  4. Gary says:

    Excellent post. When we are waiting for an apology our senses are heightened and the littlest word that appears to give the other person a back door and not really validate our feelings, leaves us with an even bigger hole. Shifting the focus to the person that was hurt –intentionally or non-intentionally — and addressing their feelings and ,your point, to take full responsibility will be a major step in the recovery process.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Sounds like another original quote on this topic “Responsibility leads to recovery!”

      Thanks Gary for your time in commenting and the insight on recovery.

  5. Tom Walter says:

    Totally agree with Kelly.
    An apology with a “but” in it is anything but. The addition of that simple, small word negates everything that came before it. It makes the apology conditional and turns the apology back onto the person receiving it.
    Saying “but” in an apology is saying, “I had a reason for treating you so poorly that was out of my control and YOU most likely caused it.” The victim becomes the aggressor and the aggressor becomes the victim.
    You did something wrong, own up to it and discuss the further issues later–separately.

  6. Goal Setting says:

    The spirit of a true apology is that it is always given freely. No strings attached. No “ifs, ands or buts.” If you hurt someone deeply in a very vulnerable area, you may need to apologize more than once. Practice empathy towards the person you are apologizing to. Ask for forgiveness and remember to forgive yourself.

    Live Your Dreams,


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Good point Jill — if the situation was severe, you may need to apologize more than once. Some times you may even need to do more than apologize. Finding the right mix is difficult yet quite feasible.

      Thanks for your contribution.
      Warmest wishes,

  7. Sorry to be coming in late – I would have written sooner IF I had been paying attention. 🙂 Here is what I can add to the discussion, IF an apology is called for – make it sincerely and unconditionally. IF you feel an apology is not called for – either say nothing or stand your ground. Too often we weaken our postion as teammates or leaders by apologizing when it is not warranted in order to smooth the waters. That is when the “conditions” start to appear. So to avoid the conditions, say what you mean and do what you say – when you do, no apology is necessary.

  8. Kelly says:

    A great reminder of the difference between selling to someone once and creating a customer for life.

  9. Liam says:

    Kate, as always, you hit the nail on the head!

    As Kelly said, ‘but’ is also the other sincerity killer.

    I’ve been training people to avoid using the word ‘but’ in apologies and objection handling situations for a long time for the same reason.

    What I find interesting is that when people start to make their sentences more complex, by using conjunctions such as ‘if’ and ‘but’ to link ideas together instead of using separate sentences, the sincerity value almost always plummets. I have a similar experience when people start using a lot of abstract nouns.

    Maybe lawyers should start taking this on board!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Liam,
      Quite true what you say — that conjunctions can often make conversation (and writing) more complex. The conjunction combo that I learned to omit is “if only …. but” — a double whammie.

      Thanks for your extra perspective.

  10. Hello Kate,
    Great post , and great comments! My opinion is:
    *An apology can only attenuate a difficult situation, and first we must even try to avoid to be in these more or less delicate situations.
    *I think is good to say and to do : “I am sorry, I know that is not the same but how can I make it up to you?”
    *Another important aspect is -using non-verbal communication (a sincere eye contact) -this make a big difference in doing things right .
    My best wishes for everyone!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Your direct approach would work quite well. I might add “very sorry” and change the “but” to “and”. In any case, I like your addition of “making it up to you.”

      Thanks for adding that.


  11. Great post Kate! This is a part of the customer experience that can be so easily rectified if we paid more attention to the words that we use and the way we say them. I won’t repeat the other comments above as they are all right on target. One thing that I might add is to agree with the customer about their distress. You aren’t agreeing with them that we (the company) made a mistake, but agreeing with their frustration. The inconvenience is what most customers are upset about, not the issue itself. People understand that mistakes happen. Customers want empathy and agreeing with their frustration gives them that. My suggestion is to say “You are absolutely right! This isn’t how we want any of our customers to feel. I’m so sorry for this frustration/situation/mistake. Let’s find a way to make this work out the way it should have from the beginning.” By saying this in the right way, you can turn an adversary into a partner and work together. When done correctly, this customer will be far more loyal than one who never had an issue in the first place.

  12. Tammy says:

    Great Post… so honest and true. A heartfelt, sincere apology is all about the words we choose and how we choose to deliver them. What does the bible say in Proverbs? “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

  13. Monica Diaz says:

    Our choice of words is so telling of our underlying feelings. When driven by authenticity, taking responsibility is so uncommon that it usually received well. It is refreshing to know that someone cares enough not only to apologize but to acknowledge one’s feelings! Great post 😉

  14. MG says:

    This is a great article, Kate! I never thought about that word before and I am sure I used it in apologies in the past. I will certainly think about it more. (smile) Another insincere apology is: I’m sorry YOU feel that way or I am sorry YOU were offended. That is not an apology at all but so many use those for lame attempt at an apology. Thanks for this article.

  15. Timothy Bowen says:

    I am a big fan of personal responsibility. You are correct, if is a killer. If you did it, admit it and take the appropriate measures to correct the problem.

  16. Monica Diaz says:

    I would also add “Timeliness! It is not the same to say it when it is still important, when you can make amends, when there are still elements of the relationship that are good…”

  17. Kate,

    You have a way with words. I am impressed, again, with your insight into the choice of words we use in our daily lives. Subtle, yet impactful, we can change our relationships with our words. Impressive.


  18. Joseph Mullin says:

    Hi Kate
    You are right “IF” destroys the sincerity. Your attitude and body language can also destroy the apology. If you are not genuine or if your body language conveys the opposite of what you are saying it deflates the apology to useless.
    You own your actions and deeds. If these offend someone then you need to apologize and own that as well. You also need to learn from it and move on.

  19. Kate, great question and great blog. I see you posted this on several LinkedIn groups, so I’ll post the same response on all of them since the book I recommend is worth it. On the subject of apologies I recommend reading “The Thin Book of Trust” by Charles Feltman. With this book, you will learn how to build and maintain strong trusting relationships with others, and repair trust when it is broken (perfect your apology), by being intentional and consistent in your language and actions.

  20. Edie Galley says:

    Hi Kate,
    I believe along with Monica’s excellent idea of timeliness goes making the apology in the same manner as the offense. If the offense was in front of a group or public make the apology the same way. Offering only a private apology for a public offense lacks sincerity.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      I so agree with this point Edie. Offering only a private apology when the offense is committed in public is disingenuous. Great add… thanks.

  21. Alan Hill says:

    Interesting – for some reason it reminded me of my Army boot camp. The Drill Sergeant tolerated no excuses. None.

    What an interesting cross-context to apply that discipline to customer service.
    Imagine every customer as a Drill Sergeant – that would really change the level of service I’d bet.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks for the example of a drill sergeant. Never thought of the customer that way — yet it does make sense! Kudos for your analogy.
      Best wishes,

  22. Anne says:

    Kate: Thank you, it is a great post!
    It takes a million words to build a reputation and one word can destroy it in a second. Another interesting perspective is for non native English speakers, the power of words is sometimes overlooked creating miss-understanding. In all cultures I think a genuine “I am sorry for… how can I help you …” is always well taken even if you are not responsible for the problem. Stay professional by being “response-able”.

  23. Dr. Steve Broe says:

    Excellent work, Kate, and I am pleased to (finally) read your blog. I think you are perceptive and correct – our apologies should come without conditions, if we want them to mean something. In addition to a sincerely (unconditional) apology, an authentic colleague can also ask “How can I make it better today?”

  24. In reading all the excellent responses, one thing I did not notice (possibly missed it) is the end result of a perfect apology and that is acceptance. And unfortunately, so many people fail to take this action.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Interesting perspective Leanne. From my perspective, acceptance is not within the “control” (for lack of a better word) of the person apologizing. Acceptance is something the “hurt” party would decide. It is possible for someone (e.g. a customer) to turn and walk away even if the apology was done very well.

  25. Nancy Barlow says:

    Hi Kate,
    I enjoyed your piece on apologies which also reminded me of learnings in the dale carnegie course about the use of the word BUT.
    I know someone else bought this up, and in the Dale course we were encouraged to substitute the word AND for the word BUT.
    So instead of saying something like, “Good effort but next
    time…………” it comes out as “Good effort and next
    time…………” – Such a huge difference. I must say this has been one lesson I have kept in my head and suggest to others as it made such a difference to my communications.
    Now I have another lesson in not using the word IF in my apologies, as I have been guilty of this.

  26. Al Diaz says:

    Fantastic post Kate with incredible comments. I have printed this one out for future reference, too many “goodies” to remember. Let me take a different twist on apology that I have not seen mentioned above but I think is real because it has happened to me and perhaps other folks as well. There are times when I feel I have crossed the line and feel compelled to apologize however the supposedly “offended” party feels no need since they are perfectly fine. In those situations I have asked them to understand that if I felt that I had wronged someone that it was important to “ME” that I make things right and would they be gracious enough to accept my apology. Fortunatelly they have always been gracious and accepted the apology and helped me grow so I would not go down that road again. I guess what I am saying is that it is in my mind not only important to apologize but that there is acceptance. Without acceptance one of the parties or perhaps both have not reconciled. My message is that when people want to apologize to you, to remember that two people are involved and everyone needs to be made whole.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Al,
      A big thanks for taking the time to leave your comment. As for needing “acceptance” — in the scenario you noted I think many will “accept” your apology. To go one step further, there may be times when the offended party feels the offense is so grave that even an apology can’t make it whole. In that case, give the apology without pressuring for an acceptance. The offended party’s need takes precedence over the offender. Difficult to swallow yet pressing for acceptance could show the offender to be selfish and impatient. Just food for thought….

  27. Al Diaz says:

    Kate I hear what you are saying and I had not looked at it from that perspective but could not agree with you more. No argument from me that the “Offendee” is the priority and not the “offender” and we should recognize that and not push for acceptance. Thank you for the feedback. I will keep that in mind for next time. AD

  28. I never realized I even did that, LAME. I had always avoided the “but” because I knew it basically tried to put the problem back on the person I was apologizing to but the IF, holy cow! It is like I am saying that I don’t believe I was wrong, but since you do, you can have this half apology. I did it all the time, no more.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Kreston,
      We’ve all done it and when we change — it is an amazing difference. Thank you for adding your “aha” moment to this blog. I hope you will visit again and share your insights on any people skills post that moves you.

  29. Rusti says:

    Excellent post. Like many others, I had internalized the “but”, and thanks to your insight, I will now be more conscious about “if”. I agree that sometimes it is necessary to apologize more than once. However, neither the first, nor any subsequent apologies are sincere when offered with the expectation of forgiveness or even acceptance. Remember, the apology is not for your benefit, it is for theirs. All you can reasonably hope for is that you have regained some of their trust and respect. Also, consider this. Some people don’t like to be the object of attention for any reason. In other words, they may be equally embarrassed to be singled out for a public apology, so you may want to start with a private apology. Finally, if there is a need for a “public” apology, consider you not only owe an apology to the individual, but to the rest of the group as well.

  30. Jen Turi says:

    Great post Kate! If there is one thing this world needs it is people to be more accountable!

  31. Jen Turi says:

    Great post, Kate! If there is one thing this world needs, it is for people to take accountability! Check out this post, too.

  32. Susan Mazza says:

    This phrase really captured the essence of the perfect apology to me: “putting their needs ahead of your pride”. Another word that kills an apology: “but”. Our choice of words is so important because it reveals the context of our communication.

    Unfortunately we seem to be trained to give a reason or use words like “if” to deflect. And the worse we feel the harder it can be to apologize without the “if’s” and “but’s”.

    If those words are coming out chances are we haven’t really taken full responsibility for the consequences of our actions no matter how well intended. Thanks for the queue of “if” to help me keep myself honest.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Exactly what I mean Susan. If there is an “IF” in the apology, we come across as not fully committed. The “BUT” definitely kills an apology and I think people can more clearly see that. The “IF” is a bit more insidious because it doesn’t come across as blatantly objectionable. Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  33. Yes, replacing IF with other words like THAT or FOR does make a switch in the mind. Very inspiring blog.

  34. Cuda says:

    I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings but you shouldn’t feel that way and I hope I won’t to do that again.
    What a complete SLAP in the face to hear an apology like this. Only a complete LOSER says something like this. Too bad I knew them.

  35. David says:

    Personally I think the word ‘apologies’ itself should at least be on equal footing with the word ‘if’ in apologies. The word ‘apologies’, when used in an apology, almost completely removes any acceptance of personal responsibility, or sense of remorse, from the statement. It is the height of wishy-washy English.

    The only time the word ‘apologies’ should be used is to refer to:

    a) Something you did not do. “They gave us their apologies for the mistake.”
    b) Something you did do, that you are not doing right now. “I gave him my apologies.”

    Even those uses could easily be replaced with ‘apologised’.

    “Apologies for that.” What does that MEAN? That you will cause some apologies that are randomly floating around in the ether to land on me? That you will dig out some pre-packaged apologies you had sitting in your desk draw and dump them in my lap? Wow, THANKS. Are you apologising, or not?

    No. If you are apologising, you should say “I apologise,” or “I am sorry.”

  36. Sandra Dodd says:

    “I apologize” is like saying “Greetings” instead of “good morning” or “happy birthday.” “I apologize” doesn’t mean anything. “I’m sorry” is sounding like nothing, too. The best apologies are honest, personal communication. “I wish I hadn’t said what I said last night. Next time I’ll be more careful.”
    Or “I’ve felt really bad about being so late the other day, and I know you were bothered by it. I hope you’ll still invite me again, and I’ll be more aware of the time next time.”

    Sometimes people have said “I would like to apologize.” Then I wait for the apology, because that wasn’t it. 🙂

    I like the comments on public apologies.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks for you comment Sandra. People do vary on their favorite words.

      A combination of what you offered with “I apologize” can make for a very effective sincere apology.

      Many thanks,

  37. Guy Farmer says:

    Great post Kate. It’s so much more powerful to apologize and demonstrate that we actually understand that we affected someone else in a negative way. I think of apologizing as an essential leadership skills because it shows empathy and kindness as well as the ability to step outside our own frame of reference.

  38. Marla Beard says:

    So true! I’m glad you and so many others have pointed out the “but” statements are also a great way to ruin an otherwise sincere apology.

  39. Marla Beard says:

    This is a great article. I’ve recently read Lois P. Frankel’s “Nice Girls don’t Get the Corner Office” and one thing women do is apologize too much. It’s important that your apology has the proper impact when you do have to apologize. You certainly don’t want to have the apology mean nothing, or have to do it again.

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