Five Things to Do When Apologies Won't Work

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I was unfortunate to have witnessed a character assassination. A person was in a heated conversation with a friend. The argument started out reaching back years for the “correct” interpretation of facts. It was a civilized and interesting discussion of how the friends reacted to something.

When there were major disagreements, the arguing went to why each person was offering a version he “knew” was wrong.

From questioning perceptions, the discussion slipped into attacks on aspects of each person’s personality. The transformation was so gradual neither participant showed undue concern until words started appearing in the dialogue such as “dishonest,” “unethical,” “selfish,” “idiot,” and “unappreciative.”

The Folly of Arguments

As the temperature rose, so did the depth of hurtful comments. For three hours one of the friends monopolized the conversation, barely allowing his friend to speak. He felt relief—he finally was able to tell his friend what he hid for many years. In his mind, the interaction was not only healing but also cleared the path for a better relationship with his friend.

The friend’s assessment was not quite as rosy. “No one ever spoke to me like that,” he confided in me. “How was it possible for him to consider me a friend for all these years and think so poorly about me?” It was the end of a thirty-year relationship.

When the person who did most of the insulting realized their friendship was in jeopardy, he apologized. When his apology was rebuffed he didn’t understand why. “Yes, I may have gotten out of hand, but I apologized. Why couldn’t he accept it?


There are times in the care of a loved one or friend, our frustration with the behaviors of that person may color our judgment.

Research shows the more anger is infused in a conversation, the more distorted the recollections of past events will be.

When you use unskillful or hurtful words, you need to understand sometimes the consequences can’t be wiped away with an apology. So, what can you do when an apology won’t work? Within your apology, accept the blame for hurting your loved one and hope it will make a difference. Don’t equivocate or imply the other person was complicit in the hurtful nature of the argument. If it’s your apology, you need to own the hurtful words you used. However, don’t be surprised if there are no words you can use that will make a difference.

Learning for the Future

Sometimes your loss can become a learning experience for what not to do the next time you’re attempted to attack. Here are some suggestions:

1. Argue about facts, not personalities

2. Arguments involving assessments of honesty or ethics can have devastating results

3. Don’t say something you know you would regret if the level of animosity was less.

4. In heated arguments, always leave a door open for backing off.

5. Don’t be afraid of suggesting the conversation take a break until the heat dissipates.

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