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How To Pull Off An Effective Apology

If we really want forgiveness and to rebuild trust, our apology must be heartfelt and recognize how we hurt the other person or people.

Apologizing isn't easy, certainly in your personal life and especially in your professional life.

Just the idea of apologizing often brings up one, two or all of the following fears:

  • Fear that we will be seen as weak
  • Fear of personal or professional rejection
  • Fear of disciplinary action
  • Fear we disappointed someone

For most of us, knowing we have disappointed someone, that we let them down, that we broke their trust is one of the worst feelings we can have. These feelings can haunt us for a long, long time. And if we ignore our transgression, our inaction can ruin relationships and devastate careers. This is why it's so important to say "I'm sorry." But even with this awareness, we still struggle, and saying "I'm sorry" often becomes an awkward, difficult conversation.

When we apologize, we have to do it with integrity and we have to respect those we've impacted. This is not all about ourselves. A heartfelt apology is not a list of excuses. When others feel we are truly sorry, it helps them begin to forgive us.

Without sharing a heartfelt apology, it is very difficult for others to forgive us.

The role that trust plays

Trust is important long before that fateful/inevitable moment when we all have to apologize. A heartfelt apology takes courage — it means we are exposing our most vulnerable self as we take responsibility for something negative. Having trust in our co-workers, clients, suppliers and/or family members is critical.

Trust must be a two-way street. For example:

  • Our workplace has to be trustworthy so that people will take responsibility when they make mistakes. Nobody should be made to feel stupid or at risk. Note: this doesn't mean we are not held accountable.
  • We have to trust each other. When someone makes a mistake or misses a deliverable, we all have to trust that the person will come forward to admit it. It's important that we learn about challenges quickly versus learning about them the hard way, when it may be too late to correct it or mitigate the damages.
  • We all have to trust each other to do what we say we will do when we say we will do it, to live our honourable values, to respect others, to collaborate and to ask for help before it's too late.

Everyone benefits when we trust. At home, our personal lives flourish. At work, productively, creativity, workplace satisfaction, turnover, customer satisfaction and even return on investment almost always improve. I know that I'd rather be around people who are accountable for their actions (good and bad), rather than people who only accept responsibility when things go well. Taking responsibility is often a difficult conversation... but it is worth it. Without trust people are more inclined to hide their mistakes.

How to say 'I'm sorry'

An apology can vary depending a bit on the seriousness of the event. The following are some recommended steps:

  1. Make sure the timing is right. Trying to apologize while someone is running out the door to get their kids from school is not the right time. Everyone involved must have time to 'hear' our apology.
  2. Say "I'm sorry." Seriously ... say it. The best first step in rebuilding a relationship is actually saying the words. Too often apologies do not include these two words.
  3. Show emotion but don't be emotional. Be empathetic. It's important we tap into our human skills and emotional intelligence. Our apology needs to come from our heart.
  4. Acknowledge what we did (or did not do), and the impact (inconvenience, loss, trust, frustration, additional work etc.). Clearly show we understand our decisions and actions were bad ones. How did our transgression impact others? How might they feel? By describing the magnitude of the situation, we show we understand the seriousness of the challenge. Be careful — do not go on-and-on with excuses.
  5. Ask for forgiveness.
  6. Share how we propose we will change. Every leader wants to deal with solutions. Then, ask for their suggestions on solutions — we might even learn something.
  7. Be open to feedback and don't be defensive. This is a place to practice collaboration, patience, compassion and listening skills.

An empty "I'm sorry" is meaningless. If we really want forgiveness and to rebuild trust, our apology must be heartfelt and recognize how we hurt the other person or people.


The words, "I'm sorry" can often be the first step to build or heal an important relationship. Without that first step, without taking accountability, a vulnerability will always exist.

The next step in rebuilding a tender relationship is for the other person or people to forgive. This likely will not happen immediately. Healing, forgiveness and rebuilding trust may take time for the person or people you harmed. The person or people impacted may need time to process and deescalate their emotions.

One last thought. Some people think an apology must show you are vulnerable. I don't agree. Compassionate? Sure. Remorseful? Yes. But whether we are at home or at work, we all need to feel safe in order to willingly enter into difficult conversations. Trust plays a large part in you and I having the courage to say "I'm sorry." Too often, our fears keep us from facing the truth.

Happy communicating, motivating and leading each other.

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