Arment Dietrich

The Art of the Apology

By: Arment Dietrich | May 4, 2011 | 

It’s been said, that the hardest words in the English language are I love you and I’m sorry.

Last week a colleague no-showed for a scheduled conference call. It wasn’t really that big of a deal, because I was at my desk, and had other things to work on (you know, like the Spin Sucks Pro launch), but I did have errands to run and I was waiting for our call so that I could go out and do them. Nothing. So I called. And then I texted.

Three and a half hours later, I received a text: “Sorry I stood you up, I got called into an “I need you now” meeting and we just got done.”

Really? Technically speaking, that was an apology, but in my opinion, a lame one and I felt my heart rate escalate just a little bit. What originally was something I was willing to let go, suddenly became a slightly bigger deal. Now I’ve been made to feel like my time has no value, and that I’m a little less important.

Something that could have been quickly diffused with a real apology or even avoided with some easy communication at the beginning, became a bigger deal than it was.

So I said, in a light-hearted manner, I would have loved to have received a message that she wasn’t going to be able to make it. And I got more of an explanation as to why that couldn’t happen. And it went around one more time with more reasons and excuses.

All I wanted was an apology. As I write about it now, a week later, I think of how trivial the whole story seems now, and how totally irritated and consumed I was by it then.

So I couldn’t let it go and had to blog about it.

So then? Why is it so damn hard to say you’re sorry, accept accountability?

It’s not easy – we swallow a bit of pride when we do it. We don’t want to be in the wrong. Like the image above, and like my story above, there are bad ways to apologize, and good ways.

The anatomy of a good apology:

  • Using the word “I” or “We” and the word “sorry” or “apologize”
  • Not following it with the word but.
  • Not followed with I’m sorry that my boss…., I’m sorry that you feel…, I’m sorry I forgot you were an idiot.
  • Knowing the difference between an excuse and an explanation: I got many of excuses in the scenario above. Hootsuite subscribers got an explanation.  – and it was even their fault. Did you read Why Hootsuite Understands Loyalty on Danny Brown’s blog? They sent out an email to their premium subscribers apologizing for the Amazon server outage, explained what was happening with the outage, and went on to offer credits due to an outage for which they could easily have pointed a finger.
  • Be lighthearted, humble, and if the situation allows, there is nothing wrong with some self-deprecation, ie. laugh at yourself a little bit. That’s what Red Cross when an errant tweet from an employee went out on the wrong account, saying that she going to go out and #getingslizzard. Red Cross pulled it and replaced it with a light-hearted apology and a sense of humor. The hashtag was then used to drive more people on the blood drive. You can read Red Cross and Social Media by Mack Collier.

Don’t misunderstand me, clearly every situation involves it’s own levels of risk at stake upon accepting accountability, admitting fault.  I recognize that this all started from a mere missed phone call which I won’t even remember next month. Until I read this post again. But often the cost of covering your ass far outweighs the cost of accepting responsibility.

And you know what? You’ll find people are far more likely to forgive when you show your human side, that we all do err. That we are not alone in making mistakes.

And if you’re the offender, and you’re reading this now, well, I’M SORRY. I’m sorry I couldn’t let it go. But thank you for the blog topic inspiration.


  • DHLasker

    Great post, Lisa! I cringe anytime somebody apologizes to me, and also uses the word “but” in the same sentence. It feels like it undoes anything that was said prior to saying, “but.”

  • KenMueller

    it goes against the grain of all we have been taught (in terms of business) to apologize. It’s seen as a sign of weakness. This is one of the beauties of this whole social media thing. Now that our customers all have their own voice and megaphone, it holds us accountable. We need to be better at what we do. And it forces us to do the unthinkable: apologize. Hopefully soon the art of the apology will be seen as a strength, not as a weakness.

    Great stuff, Lisa (even if the only reason you wrote it was to use the phrase “getting slizzard)…

  • Hi Lisa. Im sorry you feel this way but …. 🙂

  • MARLdblE

    Hi Lisa,

    Great points on an effective apology here. I think equally as important, however, is to be able to effectively forgive (even if an apology is never granted). Being “clogged” up with unforgiveness stinks just as much as getting a lame apology. You feel me? 🙂

  • KDillabough

    I’m sorry – two words that I’ve never considered to be a sign of weakness, but rather, a sign of strength. It often takes the “bigger person”…the one taking the high road…to right a wrong through apologizing.

    The simple act of accepting responsibility, sincerely and succinctly apologizing as soon after the omission/error as possible, said in a tone of voice that indicates sincerity ( we know the difference between B.S. apologies and sincere ones) can avert so many misunderstandings, and prevent harbouring of festering feelings.

  • sydcon_mktg

    I agree with the others below, so many view apologizing as a sign of weakness. I see it as a sign of strength and confidence as well as a sign of someone who practices common courtesy. Things happen, especially in the business world that interfere with schedules sometimes, details are not required, but sincerity in apology is. Realize the other persons value, take a minute and offer a sincere gesture, it really is easy and goes a long way!

  • sydcon_mktg

    @DHLasker I agree, the “but” always invalidates the sincerity of the apology!

  • @sydcon_mktg @DHLasker it’s the OPPOSITE of I’m sorry. not matter what comes after the BUT.

  • @KenMueller which is something I’ve been getting VERY good at lately. (getting slizzard) Funny thing is, I’d never even heard of that term before the Red Cross tweet!

  • @dino_dogan Hi Dino. I’m sorry you’re sorry!

  • @MARLdblE oh totally totally!! really good point. in this case I ranted, forgave and forgot!

  • @KDillabough it’s a very powerful tool, it turns out.

  • @sydcon_mktg details are DEF not required. That’ s the other thing – when you say I’m sorry, I have this, this, this and this going on. I don’t need the whole list. seriously, I have this this this and going on don’t have time to read YOUR list! 🙂

  • TheJackB

    It took me a long time to learn how to apologize. It wasn’t because I thought that I was always right either- it was just hard for me. I still don’t like it much, but I do it. Most of the time the faster an apology is given the sooner we get to move on.

    FWIW, I have a rule for apologies. I will apologize a maximum of three times. After that I am done- if whomever was unable to accept it that is their problem.

  • KenMueller

    @Lisa Gerber wow. you need to hang around Gini more often. She’s the queen of getting slizzard

  • punchakpr

    I’ve always done a really stereotypically Canadian thing. No matter where I am or who it is, if someone accidentally bumps into me, regardless of fault, I apologize. The other person usually apologizes back and then all is well. If you’ve seen HIMYM, they have a scene with this little stereotype. 😛

    But all HIMYM references aside, nothing beats a heart felt apology. It’s so easy to let it go afterward, it’s a win-win.

  • Robin_CE

    I just noticed something while reading your blog. I never have a problem apologizing in my professional life but sometimes do in my personal life. What’s that all about? Should I even be admitting it 🙂

    Love your “anatomy of a good apology”. I need to share!

  • @KenMueller I hang out with Gini TOO MUCH.

  • @KenMueller not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂

  • KenMueller

    @Lisa Gerber is there such a thing as hanging out with @ginidietrich too much?

  • @KenMueller @ginidietrich actually, no. and I’m not just saying that. We’re the only reason we’re each staying sane I’m pretty sure!

  • ParkRidgeDDS

    You have touched on one of my biggest pet peeves…accountability. The lack of accountability runs rampant in all aspects of life today…apologies not withstanding. There are no reasons that justify the inability to apologize. To own an behavior or action? It is just an IS. If someone forgets an appointment, it doesn’t matter in the big picture what the reason is…all that matters is ownership of the action and an accompanying apology that accepts accountability. Simple. Clean. I am sorry. No ifs, ands or buts attached. Where has accountability gone?

  • @TheJackB wow, three times is a lot. !! I agree – if you can’t forgive me, then I”M SORRY! LOL. 🙂

  • @punchakpr : ) That makes me smile. Canadians are just so damn friendly! 🙂 And its true – there’s such a thing as apologizing TOO MUCH. I guess there’s a fine line because it does drive me nuts when people apologize for everything!

  • @Robin_CE hmm, well, I’m glad I inspired some introspection. ! 🙂

  • @ParkRidgeDDS yep, i would have been completely done with it, and not worried a bit if she had just said, OMG, I totally spaced. Completely forgot. when can we re-schedule?

  • Oh MY Lisa – you’ve just blogged about my biggest pet peeve ever! Not saying sorry is actually the thing that irritates me the most in life! You can shut me up and buy me with those little words – the I’m sorry not the I love You ;).

    I always say that there’s no shame in saying that you’re sorry – as long as you mean it. There’s no shame in admitting that you’re wrong. It’s okay to put your pride aside – for pride is what will often eat you alive inside.

    Oddly enough – saying I’m sorry is easy for me. I think it takes a big person to say it and mean it when they realize they’ve screwed up – and in my eyes – they get even bigger when they do.

    My friends often tease me for saying it too often actually – they say “Ingrid, soon you’ll be apologizing for being alive” haha. Well you know what – if it means being proper and being correct towards someone – then I will say it as often as I need to and have to!

    Being late for a meeting – or being stood up in your case – happens. But in general – you send a message or call the person before hand and let them know so that they don’t go out of their way. Surely we can all find a minute for decency right? I’ve been late – but I do try my best to notify the person in advance – but not showing up somewhere and not letting the person know until hours later – come on! Even the CEO of the World Bank has time!

    Just be accountable – regardless of when – just apologize even if it’s for the most banal of reasons – like you forgot. Just say so – it happens!

    Meetings, relationships, friendships, acquaintances, whatever…saying sorry means taking responsibility and being accountable. That’s grand in itself and it shows strength of character not weakness!

    Okay rant over! Pheww…lol 😉

    Well said Lisa!

  • Lisa, agree with Griddy here, this is my biggest pet peeve ever- not showing up for a meeting and not answering the phone/text/emails.

    Beyond the apology, which you gave a perfect checklist on How to not suck at, there is the whole idea of time.

    People will be late and will miss meetings. But three hours to inform you that she was in a meeting? Come on.

    When this happens to me I always ask the person a simple question, do you work in a busy ER? Are you an OB/GYN?

    If the answer is no to both, then there is zero excuse. Sorry, I have a friend who works as a surgeon in a busy hospital and even she manages to answer texts or send one saying she won’t be able to meet online.

    I also know some people who work in very busy and demanding jobs at the top of their government and they always answer phone calls, or text. Actually they always make a point to be on time because otherwise all their schedule gets destroyed.

    You are right, not showing and not saying why for hours, just means your time isn’t important, you have nothing else to do than sit and wait for me anyways.

    You won’t remember it next month you are right, but we just change the way we think about people who do this.

    Now after all this rant, the good stuff. CONGRATULATIONS for Spin Sucks Pro! The rest really doesn’t matter 🙂

  • mikecollado

    We’re emotional creatures. Taking the high road and saying “I’m sorry” can diffuse a situation and lay the foundation for a fruitful relationship. Doing nothing pisses off and alienates potential allies, customers and employees.

    Your account reminds me of why I “flushed” a company that was recruiting me… Strike One was when the VP of HR stood me up for a scheduled call (reason: he was having dinner with the CEO). Strike Two was when he was 30-minutes late for the rescheduled call (reason: none given). Strike Three was another call with the CEO that didn’t happen (reason: a week later she responded to my calls/emails with “Oh, something came up”).

    No apologies.

    And to think that they were recruiting me! Imagine if, as a job candidate, I didn’t show up for a call or was late to a meeting? Sheesh!

  • PattiRoseKnight

    An apology puts the issue to rest; to skirt around with a half hearted apology keeps it going and going…..just ask Tiger Woods.

  • dariasteigman


    It’s never the action, it’s always the cover-up. And your colleague screamed out that you (and your time) just wasn’t that important. In an era of instant communications, couldn’t she at least have DM’ed, texted, emailed, or called to say, “Sorry I’m getting pulled into a meeting” or “Sorry I’m trapped in a meeting”? And if anyone in that meeting asked why she’s pulling out her smartphone, the answer should make them happy to know she values everyone’s time.

    Hopefully writing about it has eased your aggravation!

  • ginidietrich

    I have a scenario: Last weekend I was broached with a pretty sensitive topic and I was (mostly) at fault. I apologized. I said I should have done this and I should have done that and I’m sorry I didn’t do those things. But the recipient took that as I’m sorry, but. She even said, “I’m sorry, but doesn’t equate an apology.”

    While I never used the word “but,” I did feel like an explanation was needed. But I feel like I took complete accountability in my apology. Should I have just said I’m sorry without offering the things I should have done differently? Does anyone else read that as “I’m sorry, but”?

    • ryancox

      @ginidietrich No by explaining what you should have done, you did what I deem to be the best course of action. It shows to me, that it isn’t a blanket apology — you’ve given some additional thought to it!

  • ginidietrich

    @mikecollado Good Lord!They were recruiting you!? Imagine what it would have been like to work there. Jeez.

  • DHLasker

    @ginidietrich This is a tough one. The word “should” essentially says, “I should have done this, but I didn’t.” Even though the intention is there to say that you didn’t do it, I also like to avoid saying the negative, like, “I didn’t do it,” or “I’m sorry for not doing that,” and yet, the latter seems like it could/would (not should) be better accepted. “I didn’t do it, and I’m sorry,” vs “I should have done it (but/and I didn’t) and I’m sorry.” Very subtle difference. It does seem to depend on the recipient of the apology. I have been far more successful in apologizing when leaving all buts out of the apology. If/when the person is feeling better, they’ll either ask why, they’ll move forward, not caring why–just wanting to feel better, try to get you to feel what they felt, or something else. Maybe a happy medium is to ask if an explanation may be offered. At minimum, that give the recipient a choice to hear or not hear one.

  • jennwhinnem

    @ginidietrich When I did pre-Cana (long story and no I’m not married), I learned that it is better to ask for forgiveness than to say I’m sorry. I really like this.

    That said…from what you said, your apology sounds pretty acceptable.

  • @ginidietrich I was thinking about your situation specifically when I wrote the bullet point about the difference between an excuse and an explanation. You were trying to explain, not excuse, but I think it was taken as an attempt at an excuse.

  • @dariasteigman blogging does have it’s benefits, doesn’t it? Good therapy!! 🙂

  • @PattiRoseKnightLOL!!! I will. I’ll ask him now.

  • @ginidietrich @mikecollado um, yeah!! I think you made a very wise choice there. You were likely opening yourself up to years of frustration!

  • TheJackB

    In my experience there is often a world of difference between men and women and how we communicate our apologies. It has sometimes felt like women have spent more time trying to analyze what I have said and how I said it.

    While I appreciate being precise and why someone would be interested in nuance sometimes I have made a “full apology” in which I have taken responsibility for whatever happened but I haven’t been given credit for it because they didn’t like the words I used.

  • ginidietrich

    @DHLasker I’ve been thinking about this since you wrote it and it’s a very good distinction. She did ask for a reason, but I didn’t handle it correctly.

  • kristinanugent

    @TheJackB I think we all have various mechanisms by which we judge the sincerity of an apology. I agree with your over-generalization that many women and men — especially lawyers in my experience — have a tendency to dissect the merit of the argument and things like word choice. Ultimately I think it comes down to adjusting for different communication styles. My personal strategy for dealing with analytical-types like the women you mention, is to adopt a less-is-more strategy rather than a “full apology.” Simply saying I’m sorry, in most cases is sufficient. Especially when you are speaking with someone who is looking to gather additional information beyond just whether or not you are truly apologetic about the matter at hand.

  • DHLasker

    @ginidietrich (insert before my previous reply) Sorry to hear that you encountered this uneasy experience.

    Thank you. And while you can beat yourself up about how you handled the apology, ultimately, a person of understanding, a person who really cherishes a relationship, a person who knows and sees that the good in you far outweighs the apology, may be hurt, and will also forgive. It seems that a person who is less invested in the relationship will more easily forgo forgiving, and walk away. 🙁 And, while that hurts, that action does speak loudly about that person’s character.

    Do you feel like she gave you an additional opportunity to re-apologize?

  • MackCollier

    @ginidietrich I think it depends. If you said ‘I’m sorry,,’, then explained how others should share the blame or how you weren’t as blameful as the person thinks, then that sounds like ‘I’m sorry, but…’.

    It sounds like you said you were sorry, and then explained what you messed up and what you should have done instead. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Remember that some times when people get upset they don’t think as rationally as they should. Looking back now, they might have responded differently now that they have some emotional space from the issue.

  • ParkRidgeDDS

    So, while I have very strong feelings about personal accountability and ownership of actions and words which intuitively includes apologies and requests for forgiveness, I found myself humming this song while reading this post and all of the well written comments and, being the sharing kind of gal that I am…here ya go…

  • ginidietrich

    @DHLasker No. She hasn’t. I just ended the conversation with, “I’m sorry.” And that was that.

  • ginidietrich

    @MackCollier I suppose you’re right. Though I think she’s still mad at me, even though I fixed the situation. Not much more I can do. In hindsight, the way I treated the entire situation was wrong, but I thought I was doing the right thing while it was happening.

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  • @kristinanugent @TheJackB IME it’s not a Venus-Mars thing, everyone does judge the sincerity of an apology differently. Some take it at face value depending on relationship, others.. look for Machiavellian twists and turns. FWIW.

  • @KenMueller Not just weakness, Ken.. risk, consequences. What’s said can and will be used against you in proving your fault and liability. If AT&T apologies saying they know their service is crappy in some places and they are working on it, they open themselves up to selling what they knowingly can’t deliver. So they hem and haw and roll out a fake video blogger to issue a non-denial, non-apology instead. IDK.. just in light of how Groupon and Chrysler other brands have ‘explained’ their mistakes, how they’ve passed that buck I have to be reminded of the legal issues in terms of business, big and small. FWIW.

  • Late’s better than never. I’ve had this happen @Lisa Gerber and once I had a client so bad about it, I negotiated that time. If I didn’t get the heads up X time before the meeting or deadline, he got billed for that time no matter what the ‘reason.’ Didn’t always make every meeting and call, but I got a lot more warnings this way.

    It’s very different in business and personal. I tend to let things go personally b/c .. there’s no upside to making an issue. And a forced apology is worthless, only makes it worse. In business, I do tend to explain and qualify, not take the blame for what’s not my fault but of course accept responsibility when it is. Depending on the client relationship, I go over the top with humor and ‘oh my TOTAL bad, I missed this email.. working on it now… blah blah, so sorry’ kind of thing. Sometimes it helps smooth things over. FWIW.

  • petersonlindsay

    The beauty of email and text messaging is that it is immediate. So what’s stopping someone from holding this VERY important other meeting for one minute to send you a quick note to say, “I’m so sorry for the late notice but I’ve been pulled into a…” Then you could have gone about your business! I’m with you @Lisa Gerber – I get uppity about this too. Time is valuable. Everybody’s time. And it should be respected because at the end of the day, time is money!

  • ryancox

    I loved this. I say I’m sorry, why I’m sorry, what I should have done and try to set something up best to fit their schedule, not mine. I’ve even had balls I’ve dropped and 3 months later, attempt to save face. For example: there was a seminary that wanted my consulting — I was 110% on the ball leading up to our first meeting and at that first meeting. But I got hit in the face with work, and let it slip. Next, I played the “I’ll right that ship tomorrow” game (one we’re all familiar with)…next thing you know it’d been 3 months. I just Monday, found the email address to my contact, let him know that I dropped the ball, explained what/why — then CC’d him into my apology email to the individual. Talk about swallowing your pride…..but it was the right thing to do.

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