The Art of Apologizing: “I’m sorry you feel that way” Is Not an Apology

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“Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what you do after the mistake that matters.” Most of us have heard this Kristan Higgins quote.

Mistakes at work come in all sizes. A quick, concise apology will usually suffice for little mistakes such as forgetting to turn in a report on time or running late to a department meeting (unless, of course, you habitually do these things, in which case these little mistakes could be adding up … and causing bad feelings.) Bigger mistakes or things you’ve done to upset someone demand more formal apologies.

The key to a good apology is to remember the point of the apology, suggests Guy Winch, Ph.D., for Psychology Today. The main goal of an apology is to ease the offended person’s emotional burden and get their authentic forgiveness. Your feelings are secondary. Your guilt or regret may be eased if your apology is effective.

Here are tips on components of a good work apology:

    • Don’t wait. Negative feelings can fester, so apologize as soon as you become aware of your mistake. However, late is definitely better than not at all. So, if you’ve waited, apologize now … and include words letting the person know that you’re aware your apology is long overdue.
    • Don’t trivialize. Some of us have a natural inclination to lighten the mood when faced with disapproval or uncomfortable situations. When you’re making an apology is not the time to be cute.
    • Explain yourself if you can. Why did this happen? “I didn’t put the deadline on my calendar.” “I didn’t double-check my work.” “I didn’t allow enough time to finish my work.” Show that you understand the “rules” you’ve violated.
    • Don’t make excuses. Don’t pass the buck. Don’t blame someone else. Take responsibility without caveats. “I didn’t plan on having to do 100 other things the boss gave me” is not a good explanation. “I didn’t plan my time very well” does a better job of owning the mistake.
    • Show empathy. Let the other person know that you understand how it’s affected him or her.
    • Actually say “I’m sorry.” Surprisingly, many apologies don’t include these words. Be sure yours do.
    • Let the other person talk. Sometimes the person affected might need to vent. Allow them to talk uninterrupted.
    • Offer a solution. How do you plan to fix the mistake or how do you plan to keep it from happening again? Let the offended person know that you’ve given some thought to making things right. Winch suggests that when making an apology at work, emphasis should be placed on the solution (compensation) component of the apology.
    • Ask for forgiveness.


Work relationships can be damaged when we mess up. Making an effective apology helps mend the damage … and rebuild trust.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.