We continue to live in unprecedented times—there's no playbook. We’re living and working differently than ever before, and we’re breaking some eggs as we go.
Whether it’s making a Zoom faux pas, accidentally bringing a political view into the workplace, or missing a deadline because you were distracted by homeschooling your kids during your workday, there's a whole lot of “I’m sorry” happening around us.
But the thing about apologies is that if they’re not done right, they can backfire. An “I’m sorry” that feels disingenuous or patronizing may leave the other person feeling resentful, mistrustful, or uninterested in working with you again.
So next time the moment arises—because it will—how can you deliver an apology that feels genuine?
What are the five apology languages?
For their book, When Sorry Isn't Enough, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas researched the many ways in which we apologize. They discovered the five apology languages that are effective when it's time to step up and own a mistake.
So let’s talk about each and how you can make them work for you.
Apology Language #1: Express regret
When you realize you’ve done a thing that you just feel bad about, and "I feel bad about this" is the gist of what you want to say, this is the apology language you need.
Something as simple as “I’m sorry X happened” can achieve your goal.
When might you need this one? Imagine you’re hosting a Zoom call. One of your colleagues asks a question, and you dismiss it flippantly and move on.
Not unforgivable. But upon reflection, you feel bad that their question got passed over. Give them a call and put Language Number One to work. Offer a simple apology:
I realize you asked an important question during our call, and I’m sorry it didn’t receive the attention it deserved.
Be specific about what you’re sorry for, and then end your sentence. No "I'm sorry, but …". When you qualify your apology with a "but," you effectively cancel out the apology.
Apology Language #2: Accept responsibility
This second language may be seen as an extension of the first.
Let’s hang with the same situation. A Zoom meeting, a question posed, you moved on.
And now, upon further reflection, you realize that you not only regret what happened, but that you had a particular responsibility in it. You were running that meeting, and you had the power to pause and address your colleague’s question. You chose to plow ahead.
So, maybe take some responsibility. What might that one sound like?
I realize you asked an important question during our call, and it didn’t receive the attention it deserved. I should have paused the conversation to acknowledge your question. I'm sorry I didn't do that.
When the offense feels small—and that’s a subjective judgment—often, taking responsibility will be enough as long as that ownership is genuine.
Avoid shifting the weight of the offense back onto the other person by saying some version of, "I'm sorry you felt that way." That's deflection. And it's just not cool.
Apology Language #3: Make restitution
The third apology language is the one that pushes you from feeling regretful and responsible to knowing you need to make things right.
Let’s imagine a different scenario. A friend reaches out to let you know she’s applied for a job in your company. She has an interview scheduled and she’s asked if you’d be willing to put in a good word for her with the hiring leader. You know her work, and you say, “I’d be delighted to do that!”
She calls you again next week to say she’s just had her interview and it went … OK. When she asks if you managed to put in that good word, you realize you totally dropped the ball.
You know you owe her an apology. But that may not feel like enough. The stakes are high and you want to make things right.
This is your moment to show off your Apology Language #3 skills. You might say:
I am so sorry. I promised I would do that and I dropped the ball. I know how important this opportunity is for you. I’m going to speak to the hiring leader this afternoon—you have my word.
Putting in your recommendation for your friend after the interview has already happened may not be exactly the thing you promised. But if it leaves both you and your friend satisfied that all is right with the world, then you’ve made your apology work.
Apology Language #4: Genuine repentance
This brand of apology is about not only being sorry but taking accountability for preventing the same mistake from happening in the future. It’s about taking ownership and committing to behavior change.
In this case, let’s imagine you lead a customer service team for your company. A customer had a not-so-hot experience with one of your representatives and sent a complaint email to a customer service inbox. An inbox you’re supposed to check daily, but boy have you been busy!
A couple of days later, that same customer, having heard nothing from you, tweets something ugly about their experience with your company. And your boss is fuming.
You dropped the ball. You need to own it. But more importantly, you need to leave your boss feeling confident that this will never happen again.
Your apology might sound something like this.
I am so sorry this happened. I got overwhelmed and didn’t make time to check that inbox. But that’s no excuse—I could have asked for help. I take responsibility for this customer’s experience. And starting today I’ve put a twice-daily reminder on my calendar to check that inbox. And if I’m too busy to do it, I’ll ask someone on my team to check. This way, every customer concern or complaint will be seen in hours, not days.
I don’t know about you, but I’d feel pretty good hearing that apology. You’ve owned it and you’ve convinced me that you broke just one egg and it won’t become a dozen.
Apology Language #5: Request forgiveness
You’ve said what you came to say. The wounded party has given you the gift of their attention.
But now there’s something more you need from them—forgiveness. This part requires a level of vulnerability that can be hard to access because your request for forgiveness doesn’t require the other person's gift of it.
They may say no. They may need to think about it. They may say “We’ll see how things go over time.”
For some people, an apology won’t feel genuine until you’ve asked their forgiveness. So you may need to go out on a limb and ask, even knowing you may not receive it.
Don't apologize when there's nothing to apologize for
Before I close the conversation on the five apology languages, I’d like to add my own note of caution. Apologies are important when they’re warranted—when you’ve done something wrong or let someone down.
But for many people—and more commonly for women than men—apologizing is something we do too often in moments that don’t warrant an “I’m sorry.”
Here are a few examples:
- I'm sorry, but I have a question.
- I'm sorry; I have a full plate and I can't take on that extra project.
- I'm so sorry, but I have to pick up my kid so that 6 p.m. meeting is too late for me.
Please don't apologize for situations like these. Instead, say:
- I have a question.
- I have a full plate and can't take on that extra project.
- That 6 p.m. meeting is too late for me.
You have the right to ask questions and set boundaries. I will never stop reminding you of that. Sorry, not sorry.