3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”

I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.

However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:

  1. Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
  2. Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
  3. Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.

It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

40 Comments on “3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

  1. Great points, but be certain that there is not an ounce of sarcasm in the apology. Sometimes one can be misinterpreted as just trying to stop the conversation by apologizing.

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      • There are few things that smell more sour than an insincere apology, which serves only to add insult to injury for the offended party. So it is definitely worth a moment for the person who has made that mistake to track back in time:
        What is the foundation of the problem and what is their own role or responsibility? Were errors or false or misleading expectations set in the first place, leading to this awkward situation? Has one bad move lead to another? Even if the person apologizing has been caught in the net of another’s mistakes or misdeeds but is rising up to take responsibility, it is likely that there were times when intervention earlier on their part could have averted the end problem.
        While hindsight is 20-20, it should not be underrated as a learning opportunity.
        I have always said, as my friends and colleagues know: Do not ask me a question unless you want to hear what I truly think. If you want platitudes or cover ups, knock on another door.
        Whether the head of a company I worked for or a peer, I have never hesitated to be truthful, even at the risk of facing retaliation or criticism for honesty.
        That is not to say there is no room for tact: one learns quickly that it usually does not go well when rudeness and honesty are paired. There is also a responsibility in honesty to have thought thoroughly about a situation from all possible perspectives.
        False remorse in the form of an insincere gesture reads as cheap lip service. The bottom line: try to be forthright in the first place. Avoiding it sometimes only leads to having to face a more difficult situation.
        If honesty is the policy, a true and gracious apology bearing genuine responsibility should be able to be explained.

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    • It must remembered that a true and sincere apology means having and expressing the insight of how what one has done has affected the other person. Without doing this the “apology” may not have its desired impact.

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      • Spot on, Claire. A good apology expresses remorse for how the other person was impacted.

        Thanks for adding your insights.

        Randy

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  2. Wet sage advice! Have used the approach successfully over the past two decades. Builds trust in teams as well as with strategic partners and customers alike.

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  3. Apologizing to someone who feeling were hurt because they though you have done something wrong, when you know you did not, is a powerful way to model love and kindness.

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    • I was in a similar situation,I was asked by my wife to apologize to my step daughter for saying stop being so disrespectful. I was feeling like I didn’t do anything wrong. But I had to take one for the team.

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      • Thanks for your comments Garry. Sometimes we do have to “take on for the team” in order to preserve harmony in a relationship. Remember, apologizing isn’t always an act of admitting you were wrong, but it’s an act of taking responsibility.

        Randy

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  4. Yes it’s true sometime even you are not guilty for something but you apologize to the one who is been offended and its a kind of respect that you are showing.Indirectly you are preventing thing from becoming worst.

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    • Hi Vishal,

      You’re right, showing you value the relationship over being right communicates a great deal of respect and appreciation to the other person.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion.

      Randy

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  5. I’m not a big fan of apologies where relationships or other substantial issues are at stake. Expressions of sorrow or remorse are fine as far as they go. In my opinion, they tend to be rather selfish. They make us feel better. I prefer making amends. It should be about making the other party whole. If it’s big enough to worry about, it’s important… to the transgressor and usually to the party who’s been wronged. When I’ve fouled something up – and I’m not talking about forgetting to hold the door for the person behind me (that’s when “excuse me” is okay) but when I’ve really hurt someone, my approach is something like “Bob, I believe that my _________ (action or lack thereof) may have hurt/injured you. How can I make this right? Then I shut up and let them tell me. This signals my willingness to affect real repair to the other party’s pain at my hands….and is almost always well received.

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    • Hi Kahley,

      Making amends is the critical action step that is needed in the apology process. The apology is an expression of remorse for your actions and it lets the offended party know that you understand you did something to hurt them in some way. Making amends completes the apology process. It only makes things worse to deliver a great apology but then never change your behavior.

      Thanks for calling out the importance of making amends.

      Randy

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  6. I agree with the article – but when someone says “sorry you feel that way” or “sorry you see things that way that upsets you” How does someone accept that as an apology worthy of moving forward?

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    • Hi Becky,

      You highlight one of the key “no-no’s” in delivering an apology. Using conditional language like “if” or “but” shifts responsibility away from the offending party.

      Take care,

      Randy

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  7. I respectfully disagree. When you apologize for something that wasn’t your fault, you have to trust the other party not to use the apology in bad faith and turn it against you down the line. Some would force you to apologize as an act of dominance, and if you cave in, they smell blood in the water and come after you harder. It’s better to never apologize, and if pressed, an “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology is best.

    The exception is your point #3. When apologizing on behalf of your organization, it’s better to come from the top than the person who made the mistake, as it would appear that person was being thrown under the bus, and the public expects apologies from the proper authority. They see the organization at fault, not so much one individual, so in those cases a leader has to take one for the team.

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    • Hi Dustin,

      The level of trust you do/don’t have in the other party is certainly a key factor that needs to be considered. If you believe the other party is going to use your apology as a way to blackmail, manipulate, or otherwise harm you, then you probably have bigger issues to deal with in the relationship than whether or not to apologize.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Randy

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      • Randy,
        I agree with both Dustin and you – Dustin in the case of working in an environment where upper level management cannot be trusted; and you for recognizing larger issues at the core than whether or not to apologize. Otherwise, I think your article, and subsequent comments, promote great philosophies!
        Steve

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  8. If you have been falsely accused of a criminal offence; an apology will appear as an admission of guilt; so my lawyer says, “Don’t even think about it!”

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  11. Randy,

    Great article, and something I really needed to read at this time. Something else to remember (and please pardon me if this has been mentioned already) is that we have to apologize for our wrongdoing, whether anything is given back in return. The whole purpose of apologizing is to show remorse; that remorse cannot be dependent upon the other person’s reaction or their actions that led to your actions in which you needed to apologize. In other words, I should not avoid apologizing just because of what someone else did. I have to look at myself and only myself, realize that what I did was wrong, and express remorse, no waiting to see how it would be received, nor using what the other person did as justification to not apologize.

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  12. I have a question
    Im a teenager and i had an accident in school
    Our teacher gave us free time so we agreed to play a game. After first couple round everything went great but in the third round someone started writing bad words in the notebook but no-one noticed it but when our teacher saw that we are playing games loudly he came to keep us quiet but then he noticed the bad words and send us to the principle and he told our parents about it.my question is do i have to apologize when i didn’t wrote those words?

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    • Hello Saman,

      Thanks for your question. I don’t think you need to apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong. I think your concern about whether or not to apologize show you have a good character and are concerned about doing the right thing.

      Thanks for reading my blog.

      Randy

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  13. How are you choosing the health of the relationship over being right, to me it sounds like a pretty unhealthy relationship if one party has to apologise for something they didn’t do all the time!

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  14. My wife not only demands I apologize for getting mad at her when she is extremely rude to me or other people, she also demands I take all the blame as well. She won’t let it go for weeks and bullies me and threatens me, sometimes leaves, until I tell her I was all wrong, she is right and I will work on our relationship for the future which includes talking to her councilor. Her counselor and I talk about sports because there is little else to talk about. She just needs to vent to someone that will take her side. I can’t go on like this forever.

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  15. All of this is nonsense no one should have to apologize for something they didn’t do wrong just to make someone else feel better

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  16. Hi Randy. Yes. The counselor won’t do it again because it gets out of hand. She told the counselor she wanted a refund for the session and threatened to find another counselor. She said she won’t talk to him again if he won’t tell me I’m the one thats wrong and needs to change.

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  17. I have an adult daughter that has a huge since of entitlement. I let her and her son move in with me because she stated she was in a bad situation with the guy she was living with. She has had one bad relationship after another, when one doesn’t work out she will go back to the previous relationship which never works out. I believe she has a very low self esteem also.. When she moved in I told her that the guy she moved away from was not allowed at my house. I came home one day and he was here. I told her I didn’t appreciate her bringing him to my house. She became very angry and moved out and hasn’t spoken to me since and it has been 8 months and she will not allow me to see my grandson. I was recently told by someone that she is expecting me to apologize and if I do I may be able to see my grandson. I have to agree with you that sometimes we do need to apologize because of the relationship, but how do you do that and maintain healthy boudries with this person.

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    • Hello Sarah,

      Thank you for sharing your story. As your situation illustrates, sometimes boundaries can lead to estrangement, usually on the part of the individual who doesn’t agree or want to abide by them. But that doesn’t mean the boundary isn’t healthy or necessary.

      I’m a believer that an individual can only accept responsibility for his/her own behavior. You can be loving, non-judgmental, AND still have healthy boundaries, but ultimately your daughter will have to make the decision of whether she can live with those boundaries as well.

      Best to you,

      Randy

      Like

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