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
While there’s no universal pattern, a generally accepted standard for apologies includes three parts:
- Acknowledging that you did something wrong.
- Feeling remorse for your actions and being empathetic to understand how they hurt the other person.
- 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.
Acknowledging Your Mistake
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
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.
If you don’t want to use “Sincerely,” other formal closings like “Best regards” will work too.
Is Email the Right Medium?
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.