This year during a training for a client, I misgendered one of the participants in the audience. They called me on it in the moment.
Now, I was in the middle of a live training with hundreds of participants looking on. But I chose to make it a teachable moment instead of getting caught up in embarrassment or ego.
I thanked them for bringing it to my attention, apologized, and told them I’d be sure to use the correct gender language moving forward. I went on with my presentation and I didn’t make a big deal about it.
Here’s the thing: A lot of people shy away from doing anything at all around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) because they’re too afraid to get something wrong. They’re terrified of making a mistake. But this work is dynamic. So if you’re serious about inclusion, you must be open to being corrected because it is often the only way you learn there is a more inclusive way to be. You must also be willing to apologize and make a change—in the moment. Instead of falling into defense or insecurity, it serves all of us who are serious about bringing inclusion to life to recognize there’s value in the correction. So don’t be afraid of it.
As an inclusion and equity coach and consultant to Fortune 500 companies, I’ve been asked numerous times over the years by several clients to talk about apologizing. Leaders want to know how employees should apologize to each other, how employees should apologize to customers, and how companies should apologize publicly when they’ve made a major gaffe.
While it seems a major company is in the news every few weeks apologizing for doing something offensive, I remain unimpressed with the standard corporate apology.
As I share in my book Allies and Advocates, the ability to offer a sincere apology is a critical life skill because we’re all going to make mistakes. I encourage clients to “carry the spirit of apology,” which means having the keen awareness that you will make an error and that apologies are an essential step toward recovering from our mistakes. We should all know how to deliver a robust and meaningful apology.
But all apologies are not created equal. For an apology to come across as sincere, there are certain components it must include.
And while these components work well when big companies are apologizing to their customers or the public, they are also effective for the everyday person who finds themself in the awkward position of offending a friend, colleague or casual aquantance and needing to make it right.
You’re going to make mistakes. You are navigating a world full of people with their own complex and unique identities. So when, not if, you make a mistake, here’s how to say “I’m sorry” and mean it:
Step one: “I apologize for ________.”
This is an important, seemingly simple step that most people miss. When apologizing, it’s important to be crystal clear about what exactly you’re apologizing for.
For example: “I apologize for mispronouncing your name.”
Be sure you apologize for your own specific action or lack thereof and not toss in conditionals. Conditionals are sentiments like “I am sorry you were offended, I was just trying to…” or “I am sorry you feel that way…” or even “I didn’t mean…” Conditional apologies are not only ineffective but can further offend. Instead, focus on what you did or didn’t do. Reserve explanations for your behavior for after your apology has been accepted. Offended folks don’t care about your reasons until they are made whole.
Unsure an apology is in order? Often times, a person’s body language will let you know when you have offended them, or they may just come right out and tell you. In either case, the first step to a proper apology, is to state plainly “I am sorry for _______” before moving on to step two.
Step two: “Moving forward I will ________.”
After you’ve clearly owned the action for which you’re apologizing, the second part of a proper apology is to follow up by stating what you will do differently.
For example, “Moving forward, I will make sure to say your name correctly.”
There are times when you don’t know what the moving forward action should be. In this case you can ask what would be the most appropriate alternative action. This might sound like: “Can you tell me how to say your name so I can make sure to pronounce it correctly going forward?” If you’re unsure what the best next step to move forward should be, don’t be afraid to come out and ask what you can do in the future as not to commit the same offense again.
While the example above is simple, this works for more complex situations as well and should be the foundation for any meaningful apology. Below are a couple more examples:
- “I apologize for my remarks about Black talent. Moving forward I will mind my bias before speaking publicly.”
- “I apologize for creating and sharing an offensive design. Moving forward I will work to be more inclusive in the creative process.”
- “I apologize for misgendering you. Would you share with me how you would like for me to refer to you going forward?”
Everything else you want to share has to come after the meaningful apology. “Here are the ways I am going to check my bias…” or “To work on being more inclusive when designing, I will take these steps…” Even if you want to offer an explanation with a statement like, “I made the mistake because…” it’s most likely to be heard and impactful if it comes after the apology.
A final tip: Don’t make the mistake of personalizing the apology, it’s not about you. Apologizing is about righting the wrong, so you can move forward and be productive. And remember, we’re human—mistakes happen and they always will. Push whatever personal feelings you have aside and deliver the apology from a genuine space, rather than a defensive one. Trust me, people can tell the difference.
Apologies can be really simple, and while even the best apology doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, it does give each of us the opportunity to learn and grow in the moment toward being more inclusive. The work of inclusion and equity isn’t asking for perfection. It is asking you to acknowledge that on the journey and you will make mistakes. Apologies should just be par for the course.