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5 mistakes people make when they (try to) apologize

Instead of having to apologize for making a disingenuous apology, get it right the first time.

5 mistakes people make when they (try to) apologize
[Photo: DANNY G/Unsplash]

Few people enjoy giving apologies. It’s tough to admit you’ve made a mistake, especially if you’re in a leadership role. It can be a blow to the ego and a challenge to your pride, and when you’re in charge, you’re supposed to have the answers, right?

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“All of us make mistakes,” says communication expert Stacey Hanke, author of Influence Redefined: Be the Leader You Were Meant To Be Monday to Monday. “Acknowledging those mistakes while taking ownership demonstrates responsibility and maturity as a leader. Apologies allow us to build stronger, more trustworthy relationships with those around us. They also help us grow as professionals and in our roles as leaders.”

Unfortunately it’s common to pepper an apology with excuses. Instead of having to apologize for making a disingenuous apology, get it right the first time by avoiding these five mistakes:

1. Not owning the mistake

Before you start an apology, make sure you sincerely believe you made the mistake and the desire to correct it comes from your heart, says Hanke.

“Placing blame or trying to justify your actions will diminish the power of your apology and hurt your credibility,” she says. “Excuses will only intensify the feelings of rejection, animosity, anger, and pain.”

Instead, own your mistake. Understand what you should have done differently and commit to making a change in the future, says Hanke.

2. Carelessly choosing your words

Before you start to plan your apology, consider how the mistake impacted the individual, says Hanke. “How do you want them to feel after you make your apology, and what are the next steps to take to rebuild or cultivate the relationship?” she asks. “Once you lay out those answers, you can consider your words and design the message.”

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An apology can have several layers, as well as an element of risk, says Hanke. “Your message needs to be clear and resonate with the listener,” she says. “We get so caught up in the emotion behind the mistake.”

A big part of what you say should be explaining why you made the mistake and what you are going to do to resolve it. Be careful using the word “hope,” she adds. “Saying ‘I hope this makes you feel better’ can feel out of place and diminish the message.”

3. Saying too much

In addition to choosing your words carefully, try to be as brief as possible. “When in doubt, pause and think through what want to say without extra words,” says Hanke. “The extreme other side is when we apologize too much. The more we say, the more we frustrate.”

Apologize once; more than that and the mistake grows to a bigger mistake because you’re putting a spotlight on it, says Hanke.

“Keep your sentences short, clear, and to the point,” she says. “The mistake has already been done. People are more interested in why you did it and what you’re going to do about it.”

4. Leaving out the specifics

Know what you are apologizing for before you do, and don’t try to rush through it without addressing that.

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“Elaborate on the reason and acknowledge greater ownership,” says Hanke. “Just tell the truth. Nothing bad can ever come out of saying the truth. There might be consequences, but we often fall away from the truth because we fear what happens on the other side. Being willing to be uncomfortable and addressing specifics can increase your credibility in long run.”

5. Making it impersonal

The method of apology is as important as the message itself, so don’t hide behind a screen, says Hanke.

“Recognize when a mistake requires a face-to-face admission and don’t rely on technology to do your heavy lifting,” she says. “Look the person directly in the eye to make a connection of trust. If face-to-face interactions aren’t possible, pick up the phone so the offending person hears your voice and acknowledges your sincerity.”

Make sure your body language and tone of voice reflect your sincerity. “If not, you run the risk that your message won’t be delivered in the way you intend,” says Hanke.

It can help to practice

To get clear on your message and deliver an effective apology, it can help to rehearse it in front of a trusted friend, Hanke suggests.

“They can give you helpful feedback rather than relying on how you feel you sound in own head,” says Hanke. “Maybe your message sounds like you’re making an excuse. You can benefit if you practice with a listener. A sincere apology can start the process of rebuilding a relationship.”

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