How to Apologize – And When You Shouldn’t Say Sorry


We all make mistakes, and inevitably some of those mistakes happen at work. Apologizing is a crucial life skill, and there is more that goes into a successful apology than just saying “I’m sorry.” Most of the time when we apologize at work we are saying it when we actually have nothing to be sorry for. Learn how to analyze the situation at hand and be able to decide if it warrants an apology. Knowing when to apologize and the components of a meaningful apology are crucial to building trust and relationships.

When Not to Apologize

If you’re using “I’m sorry” like a comma for every minor issue an apology can lose its meaning and make you come across as weak or unable to handle the job. If someone else is late getting you something or you’re waiting on them to be able to complete a task, don’t apologize for trying to get the issue resolved and get the job done. Apologizing in this instance can come across as being partially to blame for the incomplete task, and if the responsibility for their missed deadline or assignment has nothing to do with you then apologizing can send the wrong message.

You also should not be apologizing if you have nothing to be sorry for.  Don’t start every email with “sorry to bug you” – odds are the email you’re sending is part of what that colleague is expected to respond to as part of their job. Similarly, you do not need to apologize any time you’re giving a realistic boundary or setting expectations. Saying things like “I’m sorry but I cannot meet today”, “sorry but I cannot send that report until Thursday” or “I’m sorry that printer is broken” are all examples of situations where you do not need to be saying sorry – you’ve done anything wrong. You shouldn’t be apologizing when what you’re really feeling is uneasy, awkward or insecure. Realize the patterns of when you’re over-apologizing and think about the times that you say you’re sorry. Analyzing the patterns of behavior will help you stop and think about whether the situation really merits and apology or if you’re apologizing as a result of another emotion you’re feeling.

How to Apologize

When you really do make a mistake, you need to own it and deliver a heartfelt apology. Follow these five steps to deliver a meaningful and professional apology:

  1. Be timely. An apology loses its meaning if it comes days or weeks after the event. Take the time to calm yourself and compose your thoughts, but apologize as soon as you get the opportunity.
  2. Give specifics. Be specific about exactly what you’re sorry for and the consequences of your mistake. Saying “I’m sorry about the other day” is not as meaningful as saying “I’m sorry that I was late to that client meeting, it wasn’t professional and I understand why the client was not happy.” Giving specifics around what you’re sorry for lets the person know that you are conscious of exactly what you did wrong and why your actions matter.
  3. No excuses. An apology is not your time to list your excuses. If your apology is followed by a “that’s because” or “but” you need to rethink your apology. You cannot own something going wrong and provide a list of excuses why it wasn’t actually your fault.
  4. Own it. Take responsibility for your mistake and actually say “I’m sorry” and that you regret your actions. Own what exactly you did wrong and accept the responsibility for what happened.
  5. Offer a resolution. Offering a resolution shows that you have put thought into the impact of your mistake and that you care about fixing the issue or preventing it from happening again.