9 MIN READ

How to Apologize

Saying Sorry for a Mistake

 

Losing your cool in a meeting. That Tweet you really shouldn't have sent. Gossiping about a colleague. We all make mistakes, and sometimes hurt people through our behavior, words and actions – intentionally or by accident.

That's why we all need to know how to apologize. It isn't always easy to say you're sorry, but it's the best way to restore trust when you've done something wrong.

In this article, we'll explore why apologies are so important, and look at how to say sorry for a mistake you've made.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

What Is an Apology?

An apology is a statement with two key elements. It:

  1. Shows you feel remorse over your actions.
  2. Acknowledges the hurt that your actions caused to someone else.

Why Apologize?

Sincere apologies help to rebuild relationships with people you've hurt. That could be colleagues, clients, friends, or family.

By owning up to your mistake, you open a dialog with the other person. That way, you can reflect on and take responsibility for your actions. And they can process their feelings, restore their dignity, and avoid blaming themselves for what happened.

Apologizing can help you to act better in the future, maintain your self-respect, and restore your integrity in the eyes of others.

Your apology may not be accepted right away, but you'll likely feel relieved that you've done the right thing and tried to make amends for your mistake.

Consequences of Not Apologizing

What happens if you don't apologize for your mistakes? Well, you could damage your relationships, harm your reputation, and even limit your career opportunities. After all, no one wants to work with someone who can't take responsibility for their own actions.

If you're a manager or team leader refusing to apologize also negatively affects your team and sets a bad example. The resulting animosity, tension and pain can create a toxic work environment.

Why Are Apologies Difficult?

So, why do some people still avoid saying "I'm sorry"? First, apologizing takes courage. It puts you in a vulnerable position, leaving you open to attack or blame. Some people struggle to be this brave.

Or, you may be so full of shame and embarrassment over your actions that you can't bring yourself to face the other person.

You may even feel under pressure to apologize when you've not done or said anything wrong. While unfair criticism can happen, it's important to reflect on why the other person feels aggrieved. You may be missing something that does require an apology – or may lead to reconciliation.

How to Apologize Properly

Psychologists Steven Scher and John Darley present a four-step framework that you can use to apologize. [1]

  1. Express Remorse for a Mistake

  2. Admit Responsibility

  3. Make Amends

  4. Promise That It Won't Happen Again

How to Show Remorse for a Mistake

Every apology should start with two magic words: "I'm sorry," or "I apologize."

For example, you could say: "I'm sorry that I snapped at you yesterday. I feel embarrassed and ashamed by the way I acted."

Your words need to be sincere and authentic. Be honest with yourself, and with the other person, about why you want to apologize. Never make an apology when you have ulterior motives, or if you see it as a means to an end.

An Example of Admitting Responsibility

When apologizing, it's tempting to explain your actions. But these can be perceived as excuses and shifting blame.

For example: "I'm sorry that I snapped at you when you came into my office yesterday. I had a lot on my plate." In this case, you excuse your behavior because of stress, and you imply that the other person was at fault because they bothered you on a busy day.

Instead, admit responsibility for your actions or behavior, and acknowledge what you did. You need to empathize with the person you wronged, and show that you understand how you made them feel.

It's better to say, "I know that I hurt your feelings yesterday when I snapped at you. I'm sure this embarrassed you, especially since everyone else on the team was there. I was wrong to treat you like that."

Words You Can Use to Make Amends

When you make amends, you take action to make the situation right. Here are two examples:

  • "If there's anything that I can do to make this up to you, please just ask."
  • "I realize that I was wrong to doubt your ability to chair our staff meeting. I'd like you to lead the team through tomorrow's meeting to demonstrate your skills."

Think carefully about this step. Token gestures or empty promises will do more harm than good. Because you feel guilty, you might also be tempted to give more than what's appropriate – so be proportionate in what you offer.

How to Promise It Won't Happen Again

Finally, reassure the other person that you're going to change your behavior. This is vital for rebuilding trust and repairing the relationship.

You could say, "From now on, I'm going to manage my stress better, so that I don't snap at you and the rest of the team. And, I want you to call me out if I do this again."

Make sure that you honor this commitment to prove your trustworthiness and accountability.

Tip:

Worried that your apology won't come out right? Write down what you want to say, and then role-play the conversation with a friend. But don't practice so much that your apology sounds staged or insincere.

How to Say Sorry in Writing

According to relationship psychologist Nicole McCance, it's always better to apologize face-to-face than to say sorry in a letter or email.

Apologizing in person lets you show your sincerity with non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. [2]

If this simply isn't possible, here's an example of how to write an apology:

Dear Latisha,

I'm sorry for interrupting your presentation yesterday. I feel embarrassed by the way I acted – and the aggressive tone I used.

I know that I hurt your feelings. And I'm sure you must feel frustrated, especially as you had great points to share with the team. I was wrong to put my interests above yours and the wider team. From now on, I'm going to work on my self-control.

If there's anything I can do to make this up to you, please do ask.
My sincere apologies,

 
Geoff

Sincere Apologies May Take Time

Keep in mind that the other person might not be ready to forgive you for what happened. Give them time to heal.

For example, after you make your apology, you could say, "I know that you might not be ready to forgive me, and I understand how that feels. I simply wanted to say how sorry I am. I promise that it won't happen again."

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I Want to Apologize, but What About Legalities?

Bear in mind that the law in some countries or regions may interpret an apology as an admission of liability or guilt.

Before you apologize on behalf of your organization, speak with your boss, H.R. team, or a legal professional. But don't use this as an excuse not to say sorry – unless the risk is significant.

Is It Too Late to Apologize?

In short, no. One study shows that apologizing too quickly can fail. As research author Cynthia M. Frantz says: "The purpose of the apology is to help the victim feel heard and understood, and convince them that the perpetrator is not going to do it again."[3] So, saying sorry after you've heard a person out and had time to reflect could lead to a more effective apology.

Key Points

An apology is a statement of remorse that you make when you've done something wrong. It can be difficult to apologize, but saying sorry can do a lot to preserve and mend relationships.

Follow these steps when you make an apology:

  1. Express remorse.
  2. Admit responsibility.
  3. Make amends.
  4. Promise that it won't happen again.

Don't offer excuses when you apologize. Otherwise, you'll sound as if you're trying to shift the blame away from yourself and on to someone or something else.

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Comments (40)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Eitan,

    If I understand you correctly, you have missed a due date. If it is a work situation, apologizing often reduces tension.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Eitan wrote
    should I be stressed if I have a due date to apologize
  • Over a month ago Eitan wrote
    did the story upwards actually happen?
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