Despite the best intentions, there will be times in a
relationship—whether it’s personal or professional—where one party gets hurt or
You might’ve been a little careless with your words or insensitive to
the other party’s feelings, and in some cases your actions might’ve been taken
out of context.
Whatever the case may be, you’re eventually going to
apologize to someone for something. Since it won’t always be possible to avoid your
co-workers, friends, and family when emotions run high, you need to learn how
to ask for forgiveness and deal with these uncomfortable situations.
Learning how to apologize properly and sincerely is crucial
skill if you want to build long-lasting relationships in and out of work.
What Is an Apology & What Does It Accomplish?
Have you ever had someone say “sorry” to you, but you didn’t feel like forgiving them because their
apology felt forced or insincere? If you have, then you know a good apology is
hard to come by.
A good apology has two elements:
- It shows the person’s regret over
their words or actions.
- It acknowledges that said actions,
intentional or not, hurt the person you’re apologizing to.
So you can’t just say “I’m
sorry” and leave it at that. You’ve got to show remorse and understanding
that your actions hurt someone else. Only when these two elements are present in
your apology can you start to rebuild your broken relationship.
Admitting your wrongdoings helps the person you offended to
heal, and ensures they don’t wrongly blame themselves for what happened. For
your part, taking responsibility strengthens your reputation as a fair and
honest person, while giving you more confidence to come clean when something
else goes wrong in the future. You’ll also feel a sense of relief after talking
things through with the person you offended.
List of Business & Personal Situations That Warrant an Apology
Here’s a list of professional and well as personal situations that require a good apology:
1. Work & Business
- failure to deliver a task on time
or according to specifications
- arriving late to a meeting
- not answering emails or calls
- disagreements over pricing and
scope of work
- misunderstandings about project
- not living up to your promises or
- unexpected costs that you’ve got to
include in your bill
- unexpected problems that’ll
delay the project, like a government approval taking too long or a vendor that
couldn’t deliver at the last minute
2. Family, Friends, & Personal Relationships
- forgetting to bring gifts for
- arriving late at parties
- ignoring a friend’s or family
- money-related disagreements, such
as not agreeing on how much to spend on vacations, gifts, or groceries
- saying something mean or
Negative Consequences of Not Asking for Forgiveness
Not apologizing or giving a half-hearted apology will damage
your relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. It can distance you
from close friends you once talked to and hang with regularly. It can strain
work relationships to the point you no longer feel comfortable speaking to your
team or joining them for lunch breaks.
What’s more, not apologizing may limit your opportunities to
work in exciting projects at work, either because you won’t feel comfortable
working with the person mad at you or you won’t get invited to join these
projects because of the altercation. Your teammates and other people in your
office might take sides if it’s a big enough altercation and that may affect
the opportunities you receive at work.
Managers may feel justified not apologizing for their
mistakes, especially in situations where their employees are partly to blame. Learning
how to apologize is part of an effective long-term leadership strategy. No one
wants to work with a boss who can’t admit their mistakes. It also creates a
toxic environment with no accountability, since subordinates feel justified in passing
the blame to others because that’s what their boss does.
How to Apologize Step by Step
You already know how an insincere apology can wreak havoc in
your relationships. Now it’s time to learn what constitutes a complete apology
so you know how to apologize the next time the situation comes up.
Below is the five-step apology framework of Psychologists
Steven Scher and John Darley, which was published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.
1. Express Remorse Over Your Actions
Start your apology by saying “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” and
follow it up with a brief phrase summarizing your feelings of remorse over what
happened. You’ve got to mean it when you utter these words and be specific about what you’re apologizing for.
For instance, you can say, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, and I feel embarrassed about losing my
temper that way.”
2. Empathize With How the Offended Party Felt
Next, you need to show that you know which of your words and
actions hurt the other person and empathize with how said actions made that
person feel. The more specific you are in explaining the offending actions and
in relating to the other person’s hurt feelings, the more sincere your apology
will come across.
Here’s what you can say based on the previous example:
“It was wrong for me to yell about how we couldn’t
agree on what to with the video project. That was wrong because you probably
felt embarrassed to be shouted at in front of the whole team.”
This apology will come across as sincere because it
specifically mentions the offense (yelling about a video project), and the
person apologizing tried to imagine what the offended person felt
(embarrassed), while also acknowledging why the event was embarrassing—because
their teammates saw it.
Below are other
transition phrases you can use for an apology:
- That was wrong because….
- I wish I didn’t do it because…
- (What I did) made you feel
(negative emotion) and that was bad…
Read this tutorial to learn more
3. Admit Responsibility
“I’m sorry but…”
and “I’m sorry if you felt…” doesn’t
count as a sincere apology because the “but” and “if you felt” tacked after the
apology are qualifiers that act as a justification or limiter that suggests
you’re not fully responsible for your actions.
You’ll often hear apologies like this from politicians,
CEOs, and anyone with a speech writer. But they’re not the only ones guilty of
this, since it’s so easy to mix apologies with explanations and justifications in
the heat of an argument.
You’ll have a chance to explain your point of view, so
don’t force it in your apology. You can explain your behavior later on when the
person you’ve offended is no longer hurt and is calm enough to hear you out.
But what if the
reason someone is mad at you isn’t your fault? For instance, what if your
manager set a deadline, but failed to give you the materials to complete the job
Shifting blame may make you feel better, but it won’t be
effective and may even escalate the situation. Empathize with their frustrations
instead so you can focus on resolving the issue.
“Acknowledge that your
client is feeling frustrated, apologize for any miscommunication, and ask questions to help get
to the root of the issue rather than seeking to pass blame,” suggests an
Maryville University’s blog on handling challenging clients.
So if your client is mad that a project took longer than
they initially hoped, you should acknowledge their frustration by saying, “I’m
sorry we had a misunderstanding about (their complaint).” Then quickly
pivot the conversation by asking questions on how they’d like you to handle
situations like this in the future.
Are you having a hard time dealing with your boss? These guides
can help you:
CareersHow to Take Constructive Criticism Like a Professional
CommunicationHow to Deal with a Difficult Boss (7 Top Strategies)
4. Offer to Make Amends
You’ve expressed remorse, empathized with the other person’s
feelings, and owned up to your mistake. Many people would consider this a
complete apology, but in reality it’s still missing two important aspects, both
of which are designed to make the offended party feel better.
How can you make the person you hurt feel better? The first thing you can do is make it up to them.
Promise to do something for them in return. You can say, “How can I make it up to you?” or just
offer to do something directly related to how you upset them in the first
For example, this is what you can say after a disagreement
with your colleague,
“I’m sorry I doubted your ability to create a
presentation for XYZ product. Next time, I will let you create the presentation
on your own so you can show your skills to the whole team.”
Be careful not to overcompensate with your efforts to make
amends. Your offer should be proportionate to your offense, so you don’t end up
holding a grudge because of it.
5. Promise to Change
An apology is meaningless if you commit the same offense in
the future. This is why promising to change is crucial when you want to deeply apologize
for serious transgressions.
After promising to make amends, you can end your apology by
saying, “From now on, I’m going to (how
you plan to change your behavior) so I don’t (your offense).”
Do your best to follow through this promise, otherwise your
next apology will feel less sincere to the person you offended regardless of
how sorry you feel.
How to Write an Apology Letter
Sometimes, writing an apology letter is necessary when the
person you offended doesn’t want to see you, or you want to write a formal
Keep the following points in mind when writing an apology
- Keep it brief. You don’t have to
tell the whole story of what went wrong.
- Don’t exaggerate.
- Don’t blame the other person.
- Keep it sincere and professional.
Formal apology letters come in different
variations, but this tutorial will just focus on the main three:
- personal apology
- third-party apology
- mass apology
Now let’s look at how to write an apology letter more closely for each type of apology:
1. Personal Apology
A personal apology, like the name suggests, is written when
you’ve hurt or offended someone. It’s the written version of the apology
framework discussed above.
2. Third-Party Apology
A third-party apology is given when you’re apologizing in
behalf of someone else, most commonly your employee. People also write third-party apologies on behalf of their children or family members.
Below is an example of a third-party apology where a manager
is apologizing on behalf of a sales associate.
3. Mass Apology
You’ll often see mass apologies from politicians, company
executives, and celebrities. But anyone who has offended a group of people can
write a mass apology.
Below is a sample mass apology in case
you need to apologize to customers about an issue in your company:
Check out this article from Front for even more examples of apology
3 Things to Consider When Apologizing
Apologizing is hard no matter what you’re apologizing for
and who you’re apologizing to. Hopefully the tips below will make apologizing
easier, as well as the emotions that come with it.
1. Don’t Think Of Apologizing as Losing
Apologizing doesn’t make you a bad person; it just means
that you value the relationship more than your ego. Apologizing also doesn’t
mean that you’re “losing the argument,”
although this is a common feeling because why would you apologize if you’re not
2. Don’t Expect the Person to Forgive Immediately
Asking for forgiveness doesn’t give you the right to demand
forgiveness. When you say sorry, you’re giving the other person a chance to
consider their feelings, and react to your apology as they see fit.
If the person you offended doesn’t come around, you can
either say sorry again and stress your preparedness to make amends, or just
accept they can’t forgive you and let it go. If it’s a serious misunderstanding
or error, expect that you’ll need to apologize multiple times before you can
rebuild the trust and relationship that was broken.
3. Pay Attention to Your Words and Body Language When Apologizing
Your body language, facial expressions, and the tone of your
voice affects how your apology will be perceived. Make an effort to look sorry
and try not to sound sarcastic when you apologize.
Legal Ramifications of Apologizing
Your lawyer or the corporate counsel of your employer may
advise you against apologizing, in case your statement is construed as an
admission of guilt and exposes the company to litigation as a result.
Consider the following questions when you’re not sure if
apologizing on behalf of your organization is necessary:
- Does the situation you’re apologizing for constitute a legal
violation? Can it be perceived as a legal violation?
- Is the offense related to the company’s main products,
services, and company values?
- How will customers, vendors, and employees react to your
- Is the company willing to change its practices to avoid
Check out this guide from Harvard Business Review for more information about the questions above.
Apologies, in general, are admissible as evidence in court
proceedings so the victim can use your apology to support their case. But
whether your apology can work against you will depend on the language
used. For example, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you” doesn’t
necessarily admit that you or your company were at fault. The statement is
merely expressing your sympathy for what happened.
The good news is an apology won’t be enough to make a
successful case against you, as “the plaintiff will still have to show evidence
to support the different elements of their case”, says Atty. Joseph Fantini of the Rosen
Injury Law Firm.
“An apology doesn’t
always have to be negative. Many courts and juries look favorably upon
apologies. The fact that you’ve apologized could be used a mitigating factor
and limit any consequences you face. Alternatively, refusing to show remorse or
apologize could have very serious consequences.”
You just have to be careful of the language you use. Focus
on the hardship or the difficult emotions the other party experienced, instead
of on what caused the unpleasantness. Say “I
understand…” or “this must be
frustrating” to avoid any confusion about you admitting guilt.
Remember the 5-Step Apology Framework
Keep these steps in mind next time you need to apologize:
- express remorse
- admit responsibility
- make amends
- promise to change
It’s going to be hard at first if you’re not used to this
way of apologizing, so just keep practicing until apologizing comes as a second nature to you.