Sorry? Say So Effectively!

Sorry button

Sorry Button: Image by ntr23 via Flickr

Last Friday the 13th (somehow fitting) was “sorry” day at  Back West’s world headquarters; three occasions that someone said to me “I’m sorry.”

How effectively those apologies were tells you the things that make a sorry work, and how saying you’re sorry can also make the situation even worse.

Here’s the three:

  • Stephanie Smith, the person who cuts my hair was a no-show (as in the lights were off, the door locked, and no one in her shop) for my appointment late Thursday afternoon. She called first thing Friday morning and said, “I’m really sorry for missing our appointment Thursday. I had a migraine and was in bed all day. I’ve got time later this afternoon or Saturday if that can work for you.
  • My catch-up over coffee with fellow Barclays Global Investors alum Abe Friedman to talk about the hedge fund he’s launching never happened. When I followed my “confirming” email when I didn’t hear back from him with a follow-up to say I’m guessing we’re off,  Abe wrote back, “I am so sorry I did not respond.   I do not have the email below from you in my box.  I must have accidentally deleted it. Would it be ok if we selected another day either next week or the week after.  I have a work contact who is in from Texas this am and this is the only time I can see her. Sorry for dropping the ball here.
  • A company in which I invested was to send me a check within a two week time window. There had already been some prior bumpiness with prior checks hitting my mail slot when they were supposed to. When I checked up on the last day of the two week period – Friday, May 13th – Jonathan P’s’ answer was “The payment was scheduled to be issued last week but due to client payment delays we had to push it out to next week’s check run, sorry for the delay. I will give you an update by Wednesday, 5/18.

So what do these three examples tell us about ways to effectively say you’re sorry?

  • Take responsibility. Even if it’s someone else’s fault, you’re the person on point. Two key words; my fault.
  • Say I’m sorry as soon as you can. In the case of the missing check, saying that there’s a problem when you knew it, rather than a week later when asked makes all the difference in the world. While it doesn’t change the bank account, it significantly changes the credibility account. Waiting makes you look sneaky; forthright makes you look transparent and credible. Saying you knew about the problem but did nothing until it was discovered makes you look even worse.
  • Move into recovery mode by identifying what you’re going to do to remedy the situation. But don’t say you’ll follow-up when you’ve been inconsistent at following up – it won’t be taken credibly.
  • If you don’t have a good excuse, don’t use one. The third time one that you’ve made a mistake with someone is probably time to stop identifying other factors for your error; the excuse has no creativity, even if it’s incredibly creative. Best line? I screwed up.

As Psychology Today noted, botched apologies can have serious social (and economic) consequences. And as Jane Applegate noted in an article in  Forbes, taking the hit for a mistake – if done properly – can actually improve relationships.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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