3 Ways to Respond to an Apology Besides “It’s Okay.”

No one likes to be hurt in relationships. It’s disappointing, painful, and overwhelming. It can feel rejecting, isolating, and confusing. And yet, it happens. Part of being in relationships is getting hurt. (I know, this is not a fun thing to think about. But it’s true and important, so we are talking about it.)

 

 

Know that when I talk about “relationships,” I am referring to all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. Relationships with neighbors, friends, parents, bosses, siblings, coworkers, children, and in-laws. Relationships involve two, imperfect human beings, which means we sometimes let one another down. This hurt and disappointment is often, though not always, followed by an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, or an acknowledgement of what the person did and how it was hurtful.

 

Apologies can take the form of “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I realize what I did was wrong.” They can be an explanation of intent, such as, “I didn’t want to take sides between you and your sister” or “I was trying to make you understand what I was saying.” Apologies can be vulnerable, half-hearted, or somewhere in-between, and they vary widely in their delivery method. Yet as widely as apologies can differ, we seem to have one, over-used, go-to response to these apologies. “It’s ok.”

 

Your partner says they are sorry for not thinking through how their actions would impact you.  “It’s ok.”

 

Your coworker apologizes for being overly harsh and critical of your idea in the team meeting.  “It’s ok.” 

 

Your sibling apologizes for not helping with your parent’s healthcare in a time of crisis.  “It’s ok.”

 

Your child says they are sorry for hitting a classmate at school.  “It’s ok.”

 

Your friend apologizes for gossiping about you with a shared acquaintance.  “It’s ok.”

 

“It’s ok.”

 

I am not such a big fan of this response. “It’s ok,” seems to imply that all is right and all is forgiven. “It’s ok,” is often dismissive of the hurt and minimizing of the impact. “It’s ok,” sounds overly simplistic for a likely complex hurt. “It’s ok,” often leads us to absorb quite a bit of hurt and resentment, which will likely show up at a later date in the relationship. 

Here are three, additional ways to respond to apologies, besides, “It’s ok.”

 

“I appreciate your apology.” This is a way to convey warmth and gratitude for the apology, while still honoring the emotional impact the hurt had. This response often captures that you can see that the apology may have been difficult for the other person, and you want to show appreciation for their vulnerability and ownership of their role in the hurt.

 

“I hear you.” This communicates that you literally heard the apology and are taking it in. This is often helpful in times when you are skeptical of the apology or not ready to let your guard down enough to engage in a deeper discussion. I don’t use this response often, but when I can’t use one of the other options included in this list, I lean on, “I hear you.”

 

“I accept your apology.” This takes the previous two statements a step further, moving beyond recognition, communicating a heartfelt reception and integration of the apology. When I want to convey that I’m ready to move past the hurt in a meaningful way, I lean on this response.

 

This is not to say that you can’t ever say, “It’s ok.” You totally can. However, I reserve the, “It’s ok,” response for times when I am truly, 99% unimpacted by the other person’s actions. “I’m sorry I forgot to text back; I’m sorry I am late; I’m sorry I bumped into you; I’m sorry I forgot to return the book you loaned me.” These actions don’t typically impact me in a deep way, so a short and casual response feels appropriate.

 

Hurt is a natural part of relationships, and while we hope to minimize the occurrence of this pain, it does happen. How we respond in these moments of pain and hurt are critical, and responding to apologies offers us an amazing opportunity to be intentional, reducing the amount of hurt and resentment that we hang onto in relationships, leading to healthier and more long-lasting relationships.

 

So what do you think; will you give it a go?  Will you challenge yourself to respond to apologies in a more intentional and meaningful way?

16 Comments

  1. Erin

    I really love this concept! I just had a situation at work where a coworker was VERY rude to me in front of a number of other teachers. I did tell her that she “didn’t need to be so rude”, she then made a joke and claimed to be kidding. The next day she apologized and I said it was okay, but truly it wasn’t. My view of her is completely different and I feel it would have been more honest to respond in a different way. I will definitely be keeping these gems in my mind for next time! Thanks Dr. Allison

    1. Dr. Allison

      Erin,

      Thanks so much for your comment! This is a GREAT example of why it is so important to respond differently than “It’s ok” when someone hurts us. Kudos for being mindful of how this experience impacted you; that is the first step to doing something differently in the future! Keep it up!

  2. Alan

    I was watching the most recent episode of “Madam Secretary” and the lead character apologized to her husband twice and both times he replied “It’s OK”. I immediately recalled this article and felt the situations warranted other responses. Thanks for a very important and relevant message.

  3. Berry

    I too had an email apology after a rude comment by a coworker. At least he sent it to all present people at the meeting but I did not feel like saying it is OK. I also did not want to dwell on what I might have done wrong or how this hurt me, … Your suggestions are good. I will choose the I appreciate the apology which is what I feel.

  4. Lucy

    Thank you for your article, it is very helpful in my situation. Today one colleague spoke to me in a very disrespectful way in front of a lot of people, which left us speechless. I left the office shortly after; and about one hour later she apologised by email. I did not want to respond “it’s ok” as I did not want to minimise the damage done. But since English is my second language I was not sure what was the most appropriate response, so I searched “how to respond to apology” and found your article. I am grateful for it. I will use “I appreciate your apology” in this instance. Thank you very much.

  5. Anderson

    Having just received “I appreciate the apology,” it did NOT FEEL warm and gracious. I found this page by doing a google search for that response to an apology to get light on what they actually meant.

    1. Dr. Allison

      I, too, have been on the receiving end of that response, and what has made the difference is the TONE. A cold, flat, “I appreciate the apology,” feels much different than a more gentle and thoughtful, “I appreciate your apology.” Thanks for the feedback!

  6. David

    I recently apologized by email to a colleague for taking slightly longer than I would have liked to respond to her email (hours versus minutes) – a fairly minor failure to perform that I nonetheless felt compelled to cop to just in case she was feeling poorly treated.

    I did not receive a response of any kind, let alone an “it’s OK”.

    Am I justified in being annoyed at this nonresponse? My intent was to demonstrate thoughtfulness and build our working relationship. I frankly interpret her silence as ingratitude and a rejection of my overture.

    Is there a social “requirement” to respond to an apology, at least in the instance I’ve described?

    1. Dr. Allison

      David,

      No doubt, it is confusing when we apologize and don’t receive a response or acknowledgement. It often leads us to all sorts of interpreting, guessing why, etc. And while her silence might have been a rejection of your apology, it could have also been due to several other things. Perhaps she didn’t think the “delay” deserved an apology, so she didn’t even think to respond, as it was no biggie to her. Perhaps she was in a rush and just read through the email quickly. Maybe she had planned to bump into you later and talk with you in person and then she totally forgot. As humans, we often try to interpret the behavior of others, and often our interpretations are skewed or slightly off base. So while you may be correct in your initial hypothesis, her lack of response could have meant a handful of other, less negative, things. I hope that is helpful; thanks for your comment!

    1. Dr. Allison

      That’s a great question; thanks for asking! Of course, each and every situation has it’s own circumstances and details, but I think in general, when an issue has gone to HR, documentation is important. I also think it is important to remember that documentation and a genuine, healthy response to an apology can go hand in hand. So while you may be documenting for HR purposes, you can also use one of the responses I mentioned, if it feels appropriate. This is often a helpful way to acknowledge the apology without getting into too much detail. I hope that’s helpful!

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