The chances are, you’re going to hold a variety of different jobs over the course of your professional life, and that means you’re going to end up apologizing to a lot of different people. To err is to human and so therefore is apologizing, but there are still plenty of us out there who have no idea how to do it decently. We either overshoot and grovel or play the avoidance game in the hopes our mistakes go unremarked upon, both of which further inconvenience the people we’ve wronged.
You’re breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about formally apologizing to someone. But there is some good news here. There are only three apologies you will ever need in this life, and they’ve been neatly laid out for you here, ranked in order of severity. Ready to get your professional act together and become your most gracious self? Let’s get to it.
Tier One: The Unapology
Didn’t respond to your client’s most recent email? Running ten minutes late for coffee with coworkers? Congratulations, you have mildly inconvenienced someone. The odds are, you’ve done this through though oversight, generalized human error, and/or insufficient planning. It happens. The best way to handle this sort of blunder is not to start verbally punishing yourself or to swerve the topic hoping whoever you almost stood up doesn’t have access to a clock, but rather to turn that apology into a thank you.
Identify whatever extra effort the other person had to expend on your behalf (hint: it’s usually patience) and thank them for it. An explanation is generally not warranted in these situations. Don’t forget to smile, if you’re unapologizing in person, and always end with a little bit of positive enthusiasm. It’s guaranteed to smooth things right over.
Example: “Thanks for your patience while I pulled together a quote for this project. I’m excited to be working together again, and can’t wait get started on your design!”
Tier Two: The Classic
Alright, so you’re clearly in the wrong here, and folks are pissed. Maybe you snapped at someone in a brainstorming meeting, or you never submitted your part of the group project. This category is the most wide-ranging. It’s the kind of apology we should have all learned growing up, but many of us didn’t have good examples in our caregivers. So now it’s time to lock this skill down for good.
Clearly name your mistake and take responsibility for it without giving into the temptation to blame others or verbally beat yourself up. The important thing here is to apologize once, ideally at the beginning of your speil. You don’t want to back the person you’re apologizing to into the uncomfy corner of having to do extra emotional labor to soothe you. End with something actionable that you are going to do in the future to keep it from happening again.
Example: “I’m sorry I spoke so harshly to you in the department meeting. It was out of line, and I should have conducted myself better. I promise to think before I speak next time.”
Tier Three: The Reparation
Yikes. You slept through the Big Presentation. You trashed your job on social media and the internet turned it into a PR disaster while your back was turned. Whatever your nightmare scenario might be, this is it. Time for damage control.
First of all, breathe. Everyone has these moments and you really are gonna live through it. This horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach does not define you. In two months, you’re going to look back on this moment as a learning experience and maybe even a funny story to tell at cocktail hour. So let’s tackle the formula for taking your best shot at patching things up.
Open with the clear apology and acceptance of responsibility from The Classic. Then throw in the acknowledgement of what the other person had to go through on your behalf from The Unapology. Then, clearly state what you intend to do to fix this situation and put yourself at the other person’s disposal. This is where you offer a concrete reparation that is appropriately sized and tailored to the situation.
Pro bono work is usually the best route here. Or an offer to publicly take a fall or financially accommodate for the other person’s losses. Leave the ball in their court about whether or not they’re going to take you up on the reparation, and honor your offer if they call it in. End with a final reiteration of your apology, for added sincerity and gravitas.
Example: “I’m so sorry I slept through my presentation. I can only imagine how stressful that must have made things on your end. I’m going to get to work as soon as I’m in the office on reaching out to those who were in attendance with my materials. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make things easier for you. I would be happy to come in on Saturday to do whatever it takes to get this back up and running. Again, I’m sorry for dropping the ball on this.”
And viola! You’ve just become the most mature, poised, gracious person in your workplace, whether that’s a cubicle or a home office or a hospital or a house of worship. These three apologies will navigate you through any imaginable snafu. So get out there, nail your perfect apology, and get back to work!
This guest post was authored by Saran Gibson
Sarah Gibson is a full-time publishing professional and consummate side-hustler in the fields of ghostwriting and small business branding. She is also the author of speculative stories full of the sort of existential questions that are generally considered impolite to bring up at dinner. You can connect with her on Twitter or learn more about what she’s reading and writing over on stgibson.com.