The Art Of Apology

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Decide to incorporate empathy and insight

By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.


By the time we were in preschool, most of us had learned the importance of apologizing after hurting someone. By kindergarten, we had likely given (at the behest of our parents and teachers) and received countless apologies for a variety of offenses. We were taught a simple formula: “Mary, I’m sorry I said your dress was ugly” or “Timmy, I’m sorry I tripped you on the playground.” If we were truthful, these formulaic and often perfunctory apologies were not very satisfying, especially on the receiving end. A well-crafted apology that combines empathy and insight, however, can be gratifying to give and to receive.

The meaning of the word “apology” has evolved a great deal since its first appearance in the English language in the sixteenth century. Originally, an apology was a defense of one’s own conduct or opinions. This meaning comes directly from the Greek apologia, “to speak in one’s defense.” Eventually, “apology” evolved to its present use–a statement to acknowledge an offense and to express regret. The original meaning emphasized insight into one’s motives and the present day meaning emphasizes empathy for the feelings of others. By combining the two meanings, it is possible to craft an apology that both empathically acknowledges an offense but also provides a helpful explanation of why the offense occurred. What follows is an illustration of this kind of apology.

After I got married, I showed my wedding pictures to a friend who had attended the wedding. With a skeptical expression, she asked “Are you happy with the way these turned out?” It was pretty clear she thought the pictures were terrible, and I felt hurt and embarrassed. Sometime later, I received a phone call from her. She said “I want to apologize for what I said to you when I was looking at your wedding pictures. I know that I hurt you, and I’m sorry. The pictures were great. I just wasn’t in a very good place myself because of my divorce, and it was hard to see you so happy; unfortunately, I took my unhappiness out on you.” My friend’s expression of regret was followed by an explanation of the basis for her offending behavior. In her apology, my friend offered a combination of empathy for my hurt feelings and insight into her motives that helped me understand why she been uncharacteristically hurtful.

“When such apologies that combine empathy and insight are offered by parents to children, the parent-child relationship becomes more positive and resilient.”

When such apologies that combine empathy and insight are offered by parents to children, the parent-child relationship becomes more positive and resilient. As an example of a situation that would warrant an apology, suppose a mother and son have agreed that the son will assume responsibility for meeting his school project deadlines. This agreement seems logical for several reasons. The mother is weary of keeping track of the boy’s deadlines and the son is tired of being nagged about his work. Both agree that he is old enough and likely mature enough to adopt this responsibility. Suppose further that the arrangement starts out well, but soon the mother begins to “check in” regarding her son’s projects to see how much work he has done and how he plans to complete the work, asking questions and probing for details. At this point, the son would probably show feelings of hurt or even anger at the violation of their agreement.

Hopefully, the mother in this case will recognize her son’s feelings and be able to identify the basis in her behavior for his feelings. At this point, she could say “I’m sorry for bugging you about your work after I promised to leave it all to you.” For a truly effective apology, though, she will engage in self-examination to determine why she behaved as she did. Once armed with self-awareness, the mother will be ready to apologize with both empathy and insight: “Son, I’m so sorry I breached our contract. It has been harder than I realized to let go of control and allow you to be in charge of yourself. My anxiety got the best of me. I promise to try to manage my anxiety more effectively in the future.”

A well-crafted apology reveals true psychological growth: expanded empathy for the feelings of others combined with increased insight into the actions of the self.

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at

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