“It wasn’t my fault!” “She made me do it!” “Everyone else was doing it!” “I’m sorry, but…” “He started it!”

Do these sound familiar?

For some people, these phrases may bring back memories of their childhood, or they may have heard these statements from their kids.

Despite sounding childish, everyone has said something similar in their adult life to a spouse, police officer, family member, or friend.

In counseling sessions, I frequently hear how people struggle with the difference between excuses and explanations.

Some people hesitate to give any explanations; they see explanations and excuses as the same thing, and they don’t want to be seen as giving excuses.

Others go to the other extreme and take no accountability for his or her own actions, blaming everything from their upbringing, their stress load, their partner or kids, for their wrongdoing.

Although it can sometimes be unclear, there is a difference between an excuse and an explanation.

People make excuses when they feel attacked. They become defensive.

Excuses are often used to deny responsibility. People make excuses when they feel attacked. They become defensive.

Explanations help clarify the circumstances of a particular event.Explanations are less emotional and less pressured than excuses.

Sometimes, the only one who can really know if their statement is an excuse or an explanation is the one saying it. Telling the police who pulled you over that you are running late for work is a good example of this. If you were hoping to get out of a ticket or lying, it was probably an excuse. If the officer asked why you were driving 30 in a 25, and you answered honestly, it was an explanation.

Why does it matter?

Consider the following situation:

Your 14-year-old daughter has brought home a failing grade on her science report. You ask her what happens. She says:

  1. “It’s not my fault! The teacher wasn’t clear on what to include in the project. Everyone else got a bad grade, too.”or:
  2. “I didn’t understand what the teacher said, and I was too embarrassed to ask for help.”

In her first reply, the daughter is immediately defensive and puts the blame on others. In the second example, she takes responsibility for what she did wrong, but explains the situation so her parent can understand the reasons behind the failing grade.

People often feel frustrated when they hear excuses, particularly if the speaker directs the blame onto others.

Why do people use excuses rather than explanations? Often it’s a quick response to feeling attacked.

Imagine you are the 14-year-old girl who comes home with the failing grade. The moment your mom sees your report, she:

  1. Calls you into the kitchen and says, “You know what I said would happen if you got a grade like this. Consider yourself grounded for the rest of the month! No TV, phone, or internet that will give you plenty of time to get your grades up. What do you have to say for yourself?”
  2. Now, imagine that your mom walks into the kitchen where you’re getting a snack. Shes holding your report with the bad grade, and asks you to sit down. “We need to talk about this, she says. “I’m surprised and disappointed to see this low grade. We talked about how important it is for you to do your best. You’re a smart kid. Can you help me understand what happened?”

The first response is hostile and places the daughter in a defensive position. She feels as if she’s being attacked. The mom’s goal is not understanding but punishment. In the end, the mom is angry, and the daughter feels picked on and misunderstood.

In the second scenario, mom expresses her surprise and disappointment at the low grade. She explains that her surprise is because she knows her daughter is intelligent. When the mom asks for help in understanding what happened, she takes herself out of the authoritarian role and places herself as a problem-solver alongside her daughter.

In summary:

  • Excuses deny responsibility.
  • Explanations allow for responsibility to be acknowledged, and the situation to be explored and understood.
  • Excuses come from feelings of defensiveness that pop up when someone is feeling attacked.
  • Explanations occur when someone wants to be understood.

When a person brings up a problem with someone — a boss, employee, friend or family member — how the concern is phrased can cause a positive or negative reaction. If the first speaker carefully describes the situation without assigning blame, its more likely that the listener will not offer excuses. Instead, the two will be able to discuss the incident calmly and without accusations. Without accusations, there is less need for excuses. Explanations can clarify the problem, and the two can become a team working toward a common goal.

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