The Art of the Apology: How to Say Sorry With an Email (And Mean It)
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Everyone screws up sometimes. Try as we might, nobody is perfect. When you make a mistake that hurts someone else, it’s proper to offer an apology.

While you’ll often need to apologize in person, at times you may prefer or have to say you’re sorry via email. We’ll look at how to apologize professionally in an email to help you make the best of this situation.

The Three Ingredients of a Proper Apology

Jimmy John's Apology Sign
Image Credit: sandphin/Flickr

While there’s no universal pattern, a generally accepted standard for apologies includes three parts:

  1. Acknowledging that you did something wrong.
  2. Feeling remorse for your actions and being empathetic to understand how they hurt the other person.
  3. Restitution, where you make the situation right.

We’ll look at each of these three elements as we walk through how to say sorry in an email.

Opening Your Apology

Before you start crafting the actual apology, you have to address the person you’re writing to. This will vary greatly depending on your relationship to the person.

Let’s assume that you’ve made a mistake in a professional situation and you thus need to send an apology email to your boss. As an example, we’ll say that you failed to complete a critical task on time, which delayed the project for everyone else.

In this case, an appropriate greeting would be “Dear [Name]”. If you were apologizing to a friend, something like “Hi [Name]” or “Hello [Name]” would be more suitable.

Don’t forget about the subject line of the email, either. After you’ve wronged someone, they might not be happy to see an email from you arrive. Putting something like “Please Accept My Apologies” or “I Am Sincerely Sorry” in the subject line is a good way to make it clear from the outset what your message is for. Don’t try to get clever with email acronyms 15 Email Acronyms You Should Use for Catchy Subject Lines 15 Email Acronyms You Should Use for Catchy Subject Lines FYI, I'm OOO until EOD. BTW, PRB this evening with Y/N. If you have no idea what any of these email acronyms mean, let's review them and how you can use them. Read More .

Acknowledging Your Mistake

I Am Sorry Sign
Image Credit: stevanovicigor/Depositphotos

Now that you’ve got the opening done, it’s time for the first vital part of the apology. Here you need to clearly identify the problem that happened. Own up to what you did; don’t try to deflect the blame on someone else or make excuses for what happened.

Here’s an example of what not to do:

While I know that I missed an important deadline, it’s really not my fault. I was working with Paul on this project, and he wasted too much of my time by asking me a bunch of unrelated questions. My computer was also freezing up throughout the week and IT wasn’t able to look at it yet. So this isn’t all because of me.

Even if the above is true, it doesn’t make for a good apology. This part needs to acknowledge your responsibility in the blunder.

Something like this is much better:

I realize that I missed a crucial deadline. This project was really important to our department, and you trusted me to complete it in a timely manner. I know that my failure to complete this task on time has delayed the project’s completion. This reflects poorly upon our team, and I am sorry for that.

Here you’ve clearly laid out what you did wrong, without trying to downplay or deflect.

Expressing Remorse for What You Did

Sorry Rose

Now that you’ve plainly laid out your error, you need to show contrition for what happened. Keep in mind that what you did caused pain, frustration, and other negative emotions to the other person.

Make it evident that you feel remorse about the situation. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand how your actions led them to feel. Don’t offer an explanation for your behavior here. The point of an apology is to repair a fractured relationship, not to prove that you were right all along.

Here’s an example of how to frame this part of the apology:

I want to sincerely apologize that I didn’t fulfill my obligations and complete the task you entrusted to me on time. There are no excuses for this failure. I don’t like knowing that I let my team down, and feel terrible that this caused you embarrassment when meeting with the client.

Expressing empathy lends authenticity for your apology. It helps you forget your perspective for a moment and look at what someone else is dealing with.

Making It Right

Words are important, but actions carry much more weight. To show that you mean what you said, it’s important to make amends. Taking action will either make the situation right (if possible) or show that you will do your best to not make the same mistake again.

Continuing with our example of missing a deadline, this could serve as the restitution part of the apology:

In the future, to avoid missing deadlines, I will speak to you well in advance if I’m concerned that I won’t be able to get something done on time. I will be more aware of how much time critical projects take me, and am willing to put in extra hours outside of the office to make sure they get done. This will not happen again.

In some situations, you might not know what to offer to make up for your behavior. If that’s the case, you can simply ask “What can I do to make this right?”

What’s most important is to show how you’re going to act differently in the future to prevent the same issue from happening again.

Closing Your Apology

Now you just have to wrap up the message. This is fairly simple, but make sure you keep the tone appropriate. You should thank the recipient for reading your apology message and wish them well.

It can also be a good idea to invite them to discuss what you said further. This shows that you’re sincere and open to additional dialog.

Here’s one way to close your professional apology email:

Thank you for reading this. If there’s anything you would like to discuss further, please contact me so we can work through it.

Sincerely,
[Your name]

If you don’t want to use “Sincerely,” other formal closings like “Best regards” will work too.

Is Email the Right Medium?

Shaking Hands Business

We’ve looked at how to apologize professionally in an email. But before you start writing yours, you should consider whether an email is the right medium for the apology.

Email certainly has benefits when it comes to apologies. Because there’s no time constraint, you can compose your thoughts in a clear and direct way. If a quick apology is in order, emailing lets you contact them in a short amount of time. And unlike in-person apologies, you don’t need to be spontaneous and react to what the other person says.

But it’s not all good. Email is less personal than an in-person (or phone call) apology. Depending on the setup of your company, sending an email may come across as cowardly if appearing in person is feasible. Don’t hide behind a screen.

Apologies to Mend Mistakes

Apologizing properly is a valuable life skill. Not everyone knows how to do it, so it’s easy to leave the other person feeling even more frustrated than before. Use this basic guide on how to say sorry in email and you’ll be on your way to a repaired relationship.

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of an apology is to rebuild the broken trust. You’ve done something wrong, and the three steps above are how you own up to it and correct it. Don’t make it about you.

For more like this, check out these tools for crafting better emails that people will read 5 Tools to Write Better Emails That People Will Read and Reply To 5 Tools to Write Better Emails That People Will Read and Reply To Writing isn't everyone's cup of tea. But you don't need to be a great writer to send a great email. All you need are a few tools to ensure quality messages. Read More .

Explore more about: Email Tips, Online Etiquette, Professional Networking, Remote Work, Writing Tips.

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  1. Vijay
    January 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    This really helped me at work. Thank you so Much!

  2. joe
    October 11, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Yah, i had to apologize to my girlfriend, not too long ago... It actually went pretty good, and I will never redo the mistaked i did that day, you can count on me ! Anyway, the problems I was causing weren't that bad, she just really wants me to be almost perfect, and I have no problem with it, it's just hard from times to times. Plus this site really helped...

  3. Dan
    August 21, 2016 at 3:36 am

    As a small business owner, I've had to make apologies quite often over the years. After moving to ecommerce, I now deal strictly in email apologies. Fortunately, I seem to be covers all the bases you've outlined here but the reassurance from this article is soothing. Thanks!

  4. Laude
    June 24, 2016 at 1:19 am

    Hi Brian I made a mistake in which I mess my meeting with my client that affects my performance to my boss because my client directly reported to my boss that i did'nt came up on our meeting.
    please give me an idea on how to make a letter for my sorry to my boss and another one to my client.
    hoping for your kind response.

    thanks

  5. Arun
    May 25, 2015 at 7:27 am

    how to say sorry for misusing the office internet

  6. Ravi
    March 1, 2015 at 12:38 am

    Hi Guys,

    how to written sorry email to boss,can you help me please.

  7. Brian Tkatch
    November 21, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Thanx Matthew. I think more people would apologize if they realized what would be best.

    • Matthew H
      November 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      I'm inclined to agree. :)

  8. Brian Tkatch
    November 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    I use apologies, sorriness, and remorsefulness as three different things.

    Apology is an explanation, as in Plato's The Apology. The sign in the image above that explains what happened is an apology. The usefulness of an apology is that the apologizer felt a need to give one, that is, he values the person he is apologizing to, and respects them enough to explain himself.

    Sorriness is saying you feel bad that the other person was affected adversely, not that you would have done otherwise. The " This is much better" message is an example of it. The usefulness is to let the person know that you care.

    Remorsefulness is (explaining that you are) feeling bad about what you did. The usefulness is to let the person know that you are humbling yourself by admitting guilt.

    These three things are very important as not all situations call for all three. Indeed, sometimes using the wrong one can made a matter worse.

    Apologizing is excellent when coming late (the first time), not doing things as expected, or any time the person on the receiving end feels belittled. When it is obvious that the apologizer does not care, does it quite often, or thinks apologies makes everything better as if whatever-it-was never happened, the apology tends to infuriate the person.

    Sorriness is to let people know you care. For example, when hearing something bad happened to someone else that you had nothing to do with "i'm sorry" means you care and means a lot to the receiver. Doing something you think is correct but adversely affects the other person, for example, a doctor taking blood or giving a shot that hurts might say "i'm sorry but this will hurt". In other words, i do not regret the action, but i feel bad that it will hurt you.

    Remorsefulness is expected when people have their values slighted. A convict may be given a more lenient sentence if he shows remorse, a child may be forgiven if he really does feel bad that he broke the friend's toy, a relationship can be salvaged this way as well. Remorsefulness is the hardest of the bunch because the person must humble himself, a quality not often found in society.

    The method of remorse is really based on the relationship the two parties have. The idea is not the words but the conveyance of actual humility. As this is based on many factors including the people involved, the amount of time taken between the offensive action and the expression of remorse, and the gravity of the offense, no real guidelines can be explained. Some can be via email, some cannot, though perhaps it can be a first step.

    • Matthew H
      November 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      This was a really great comment. Thanks Brian! I actually agree completely with your definitions. :)

    • s.perkins
      February 25, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      I am so thankful for your reply! You have given me another perspective. Very valuable!

  9. Joel L
    November 13, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Great article. Unfortunately, one problem is that most of the people who should be apologizing don't even realize that they've done anything wrong. I've been guilty of that so I'm not really passing judgment. But when it comes to forging a proper apology, you make some good points.

    • Matthew H
      November 21, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      Thank you Joel! I agree completely. :)