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The Friday Five

I’m Sorry, But You’re Apologizing Wrong

Some people say “I’m sorry” way too often. Others not nearly enough.

By Joan Feldman

There are times when apologizing is absolutely necessary. Here are tips to make sure you don’t bungle your next “I’m sorry.”

apologizing wrong

Women who want to help empower other women will often say, “Stop apologizing all the time.”

  • Stop using the word “sorry” when you mean “I don’t agree.”
  • Stop saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” when you want a more coherent explanation.
  • And stop saying “sorry” when what you really mean is “shut up and let me talk.”

Sure, it may be a simple verbal tic and not a clue to your true character. But if you want to be heard, stop starting every sentence with “sorry.”

Pardon Me?

Who hasn’t fallen into the “sorry” habit, though? Some days it seems that every email I write begins with “I’m so sorry! ” (Yes! With an exclamation point!) And some of us are genuinely sorry for mistakes, or for interrupting and taking time from someone’s busy day.

Does that make us seem weak — or compassionate and thoughtful? The key, I suppose, is knowing when an apology is truly necessary — and how to do it the right way.

A Fake “Sorry” Doesn’t Cut It in the Real World

Of course, there will be times when apologizing is absolutely required. Not because you’re a pushover, but because you are a grown-up.

Especially if you are in any kind of leadership role, you will likely be apologizing quite often.

According to communications expert Stacey Hanke, author of “Influence Redefined: Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Monday to Monday,” apologies require a great deal of humility and can challenge your pride and ego. After all, an apology is an open admission of failure, which is especially tough for leaders.

“Too many leaders give superficial apologies loaded with excuses and blame,” she says. “Apologizing for the sake of apologizing is an insult to those wronged. If you want to be taken seriously, it’s important to know why an apology is necessary and to deliver it in a way that’s heartfelt and honest.”

A Sincere Apology Has Great Power

In today’s “gotcha” world, there seems to be an unending supply of reasons to apologize — and ways to get it wrong. Hanke points to common mistakes leaders make — along with tips to make sure you don’t bungle your next “I’m sorry.”

1. Not Owning the Mistake

Placing blame or trying to justify your actions will diminish the power of your apology and hurt your credibility. Using excuses to justify your actions or shortcomings will only intensify the feelings of rejection, animosity, anger and pain. Simply own your mistake. Acknowledge what you should have done differently and commit to making a change in the future.

2. Not Carefully Considering Your Words

Before rushing into an apology, consider how the receiver will interpret what you’re saying and how you say it. What we say when admitting a mistake can affect the trust we establish in the relationship moving forward. If we don’t consider our words carefully, we can add insult and further jeopardize our connection.

3. Leaving Out the Specifics

Know what you are apologizing for before you offer your regrets. Don’t rush in without all the facts. The person affected needs to know just what you are apologizing for. It allows you to elaborate on the reason and acknowledge greater ownership.

4. Making It Impersonal

The method of apology is as important as the message itself. Recognize when a mistake requires a face-to-face admission and don’t rely on technology to do your heavy lifting. Look them in the eye and apologize. If face-to-face interactions aren’t possible, pick up the phone. Let the offending person hear your voice and acknowledge your sincerity.

5. Nothing to See Here

It can be so tempting to ignore the minor (to you) ways you’ve tread on someone else’s territory or the small, unthinking ways you’ve hurt their feelings. (“Was it really that bad?” “I didn’t mean it … did she notice?”) But the worst apology is no apology at all. Sure, we’ve all worked with people who leave paths of destruction behind them and seem to escape all blame. But do they? Think about it: You resent them. And even if you grudgingly admire them, they don’t have your respect. You matter. They didn’t escape.

Apologizing: We All Make Mistakes

Acknowledging mistakes demonstrates responsibility and maturity, says Hanke. “Apologies allow us to build stronger, more trustworthy relationships. They also help us grow in our roles as good partners and leaders. Owning our mistakes provides a great example for others to do the same.”

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Categories: Communicating, Law Firm Leadership, Professionalism
Originally published April 5, 2019
Last updated July 25, 2023
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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