How to Apologize


A bad apology feels like walking away from a buffet dinner hungry. You didn’t quite get what you were looking for.

We all mess up, we all make mistakes. Hey we’re human, it’s part of what we do and we’re not perfect. However, when you mess up and you realize or it’s been brought to your attention, the next few moments are so critical. The ever important apology.

Remember, it's not about you.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Has someone ever made a mistake at your expense and all you were looking for was a genuine acknowledgement of this and you were willing to put it behind you? Then, when the apology comes out and it isn’t genuine, blame is put back on you, or the person even attacks you, it actually makes you more upset than whatever they did in the first place. This doesn’t only apply to personal relationships. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with organizations with customer service that doesn’t want to accept any responsibility for their wrongdoings.

Why are we so bad at apologizing?

Our intentions are likely good, but perhaps the way it comes out is skewed because:

  • We are feeling guilty
  • We are subconsciously wanting to avoid accountability
  • We are getting defensive
  • We don’t really believe we did anything wrong

  • The Apology Continuum

    Here are some categories of apologies, varying from none at all to really getting it right:

    The non-apologies:

  • No apology at all. Maybe you didn’t notice anything was wrong or didn’t feel an apology was necessary, but likely this lack of acknowledgement will get noticed and cause resentment. Although, sometimes no apology at all might be better than a bad one.
  • “I’m not sorry.” This isn’t technically an apology, but at least it’s honest. Although if an apology was called for, this is a direct contradiction and could mean trouble!

  • The partial or non-genuine apologies:

  • “I’m sorry,” with no specifics. What you are really saying: I don’t really understand why I’m apologizing, but let me just say a non-genuine sorry so we can move on.
  • “I’m sorry but…” What you are really saying: I’m sorry but here are a bunch of qualifying reasons why I’m off the hook. Imagine when you talk that “but” is a magic word that eliminates everything said right before it.
  • “I’m sorry that you were offended” or “I’m sorry if what I did offended you.” What you are really saying: My actions were correct, so it’s your fault because what I did shouldn’t have offended you.

  • The real apologies:

  • “I’m sorry for offending you.” Now we’re getting better. You are acknowledging without question your role and taking responsibility.
  • “I’m sorry for what I did and for offending you.” One step up. Accountability & acknowledgement.
  • “Have I offended you? I feel like I have and I’m sorry for doing what I just did.” Anticipating that something has gone wrong and actively seeking input. The proactive / pre-emptive apology. Put out the fire before it even burns. This requires being really in tune with the other person and having very high emotional intelligence, but is quite effective.

  • Just being conscious of how bad we naturally are at apologizing will make you better at it, but here is some guidance on doing it better:

  • Pick the right timing to apologize – usually the sooner the better, but not if the other person won’t be ready to listen when the situation is so raw
  • Give a true apology that is centred around the other person
  • If appropriate, offer an explanation of why you did what you did – not phrased as an excuse, but as a launchpad for explaining what you could do differently next time
  • Demonstrate that you understand the consequences of the mistake you made
  • Ask what you can do to make things right, other than the apology itself
  • Leave them alone and don’t assume that your apology will instantly make everything alright

  • Apologizing well is useful whether you are dealing with personal relationships, if your company made a mistake, or if your charity messed up with a donor. So many people are just looking for a real acknowledgement and they will be satisfied.

    Remember, it’s not about you. If you make it about you, you’re missing the point of an apology.

    Constant Questions: When has your apology needed an apology? When did you get it right? Do you have any advice on how to apologize well? Hey, you just offended me – are you sorry? Are you REALLY sorry or just saying it? (Ok, you didn’t offend me. You could never offend me, not after all we’ve been through together in this post.)

    Closing thought, taking it old school to the days of low frame rate cartoons. It was either this or The Human League’s “I’m Only Human”, but then I would have to apologize for the bad haircuts and longing glances that dominated 80’s music videos.