Did You Ever Apologize and Have it Rejected?


One reason why so many people find it difficult to apologize is that they are afraid that the apology they offer will be rejected and then they will feel humiliated. 

It’s a real possibility.  In fact, it is in that possibility that apology has its power.  Apology would be much less powerful if every apology had to be accepted. 

So the bad news is that even when you apologize in all sincerity, there is the possibility that the victim will reject it.  The good news is that the possibility is pretty rare.  In fact, in all the research I did for my book, I came across only two instances of a reasonably complete apology not being accepted. 

So, let me ask you.  Have you ever apologized in a reasonably complete fashion and the apology was rejected? 

I asked this question on the BK Communique, a recent blog post from my publisher Berrett-Koehler.  A reader named Carrie offered the following example of an apology being rejected.  I include it here followed by my comment. 

Carrie said…

I recently had an apology rejected. After reading this, I now realize why it upset me so much. I was in a dance class and in the middle of a turn, I accidentally hit my partner in the nose with my elbow. Which is painful enough, but this particular guy had recently had sinus surgery. I was mortified, I apologized profusely, genuinely. But he only kept shouting how much it hurt, repeating “Why would you come out of a turn with your elbow up? You should NEVER have your elbow up!! Never, never, never!” This otherwise pleaseant guy was speaking to me in a very angry and condescending tone. I explained it was an honest accident, I was sorry that I hurt him, that I would never do it again, and I offered to go get him ice. He never once said “It’s Ok”, accepted my apology or let me off the hook in any way.

I was in tears by the time I left class, I was so upset about what I’d done and how he’d made me feel about it. I continued to be upset for about 2 hours afterword – I could NOT let it go – and now I realize it’s because he never accepted my apology.

The following week in class, I tried to avoid him, but was forced to rotate to dance with him at the end of class. I approached him with a joke, “Are you sure you want to risk it?” and he finally eased up and let me off the hook with, “Oh yeah! You’re a great dancer and I always want to dance with you. I was just so upset last week because I just had surgery 2 months ago and I was afraid I was going to hemorrhage in class – I’d been having bad nosebleeds. I know it was an accident.” Even with this, though, the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to this man.

This was my response to Carrie’s story. 

Carrie’s story is very moving. I could feel how upset she was that she hurt someone by accident, apologized profusely, and yet the other person refused to say that he understood that she didn;t mean it and that he accepted her apology.

The good news is that he eventually did accept the apology, even if he didn’t do it as quickly and as formally as Carrie might like.

I take two lessons from this story. One, there’s a difference between rejecting an apology and not accepting it immediately. Sometimes it takes time for the victim to get it together. Second, I congratulate Carrie for remaining in the dance class. Less confident people might have just dropped out in an effort to avoid the awkward feelings. And then the possibillity of apology would have ended. As it is, the relationship, such as it is, is restored and maybe, who knows, can evolve in a new way that would have been impossible without the injury/apology/reconciliation.

So, I ask the question again, in a slightly modified form. 

Have you every offered a reasonably complete apology and found that in the fullness of time the person you apologized to would not accept it?



3 Responses to “Did You Ever Apologize and Have it Rejected?”

  1. bambi says:

    This is about my in-laws who I usually get a long with very well. I am from another country and have been in usa for 6 years and they are the only family i have.
    We work for my father in laws company, my husband has been there 20 years, ive been there 6, we are hard workers and the turn over is high but we have stayed on, never late, always reliable, no issue there.
    We have been close with the family but find the parents a little quick to judge all of the siblings.
    We did some volunteer work on a sunday afternoon, phone reception is bad there. My father in law called my husband about a work related issue but didnt get through, both parents got very melodramatic and started calling all other family members to see where we were. When we finally answered after the volunteer work, they got very angry at us, my husband explained (calmly) but after a while of them yelling, he said, what do you want? Then after a while i tried to diffuse things and very calmly said, we are sorry but we cant do anything about the phone situation, we didnt mean to upset you, then my mother in law said give the phone to her son, she refused to talk to me.
    So then when we called to talk they refused to answer the phone. My husband tried to talk to his father in law at work and he said hes not going to talk to him. I called my mother in law and said i didnt mean to offend her in any way that we dont want to lose their love or stop hearing from them and that im very sorry
    But they wont talk to us
    I cant eat, i feel very alone, how do you argue with people who hang on to anger, why is right and wrong so important to them, if we accept the blame, then shouldnt that be enough? Now i dont know about coming to work, about seeing them at family gatherings, i feel like an outcast

  2. John Kador says:

    Dear Outcast,
    Family estrangements like this are very sad. In situations like this, I think letters (not emails) are the way to express an apology and desire to reconcile. Telephone calls, as you have discovered, are difficult because estranged parties sometimes believe that even accepting a phone call is a sign of giving in. And even if you get them on the phone, it’s too easy to just rehearse the old grievances.
    So I suggest you write a letter expressing how sorry you are for your part in the difficulty. Don’t make any excuses or mention your volunteer work. Let them know you love them, and miss them, and want the family to be together. Then wait. It’s hard to ignore a letter. With luck the letter will allow them to reach out to you. If not, wait a week and then call them, See if they take your call. If so, repeat the apology.
    Sounds like a lot of work? It is, and there are no guarantees. But apology is about valuing the relationship more than the need to be right. Good luck.

  3. kathy says:

    my mother in law is not speaking to me. i said something mean to her and apologized profusely but she has basically cut me out of her life. she replied to my most recent letter of apology by saying she never wanted to hear from me again. there are grandkids involved. someday there will be weddings, etc. even tho i was the one who “started it” i am having a hard time not hating her for dragging it out and putting the entire family at risk of estrangement. she’s not young yet will seemingly take this to her grave. she probably wants me to feel bad the rest of my life and she will get her wish.

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