How and When to Apologize: Questions and Tips to Help You Decide

Earlier this month, I sent out an apology to my Breath of Hope members.

I had recently discovered that some of my website/post links were not working for mobile users. One responded, “Thanks … I thought it was my phone!”  For months, it was possible my readers were inconvenienced so I re-sent the links with an apology.

While I chose to apologize – was it necessary to?

We’ve all done it. We’ve irritated or inconvenienced a coworker or client, made an unintentional mistake, or did something we know was selfish, and we wonder if we should apologize.  

There are mixed opinions about the concept of saying “I’m sorry.”  Some of my associates feel strongly that (women especially) need to work diligently to NOT say “I’m sorry” so much.

On the other end, sometimes people are so rude they don’t even think about how they have inconvenienced people and never say, “I’m sorry.”

So how do you know when to apologize, and when not to? Here are a few questions to help you decide.

  1. Did I inconvenience someone?
  2. Did I intentionally cause pain? (You may think, “I would never do that!” but perhaps you did participate in gossip, or try to put your idea in front of someone else’s.)
  3. Did I unintentionally cause pain or inconvenience? (In this case, I had.)

If you answered yes to any of these first three, there’s a good chance a sincere apology would be welcome, particularly if there is a pattern of behavior involved. (i.e. you tend to “run late” often and people have to wait for you.)  If it’s a first time, smaller thing (i.e. maybe just today you ran a few minutes late, but it’s not a pattern) then perhaps a simple, “Thank you for your patience!” is enough.

More questions …

  1. Is this colleague super-sensitive and am I feeling like I need to continually apologize just to keep the peace?
  2. Am I overly sensitive to never causing anyone else a problem, to the point of living in fear about it?
  3. Am I thinking of apologizing mainly to get back into their good graces or to make sure they don’t change their opinion of me (but I’m really not sorry about what I said/did)?

If you answered yes to any of these three, you may want to hold back on offering that apology.

I have been blessed by a couple truly heartfelt, well put apologies. In one case, a colleague took responsibility for an issue and acknowledged the negative effect it had on me.  You can read about another here.

If you decide an apology is in order, here are some ways to make it more effective:  

  • Handle it as quickly, and as privately, as possible.
  • Acknowledge how you inconvenienced or hurt the person.  (“I didn’t respect your time.”)
  • Thank them for their patience with you (i.e. if they didn’t say anything when you were late for the fifth time.)
  • Use meaningful words such as, “I’m truly sorry. Would you please forgive me?” rather than, “Oh, sorry about that.”
  • If appropriate, share steps you will take to avoid the problem in the future. (“I’m starting to add a 10-minute warning before appointments on my calendar.”
  • NEVER say, “I’m sorry YOU took it that way” or “I’m sorry that’s how you feel.”  That’s not an apology at all!

And if you decide not to apologize, be confident in your choice, and move on with the relationship in a positive, courteous way for the future.

Want to talk over a challenging situation at work with someone not in the middle of it? I offer a free 30-minute strategy session to any professional who’d like help crafting more work-life harmony.  Book yours here.

Image by freestocks-photos from Pixabay

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