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How to Say Sorry: 7 Musts to Grow Your Influence With an Apology

Stacey Hanke
Stacey Hanke

Knowing when and how to apologize shows strength, not weakness.

Apologies are something we love to receive and hate to give. Saying "I'm sorry" is tough. It challenges our pride and our ego with its open admission of failure and wrongdoing. But when delivered with sincerity and heartfelt meaning, apologies hold power.

Whether you are apologizing for failure or for wronging another person, it's critical to deliver the apology with sincerity. Apologies loaded with excuses and blame are superficial and not really apologies at all.

When was the last time you knew a leader to say "I'm sorry" in an honest, heartfelt way? We all make mistakes, even the most experienced and business-savvy professionals. Sadly, many leaders fail to admit when they do. They fear their apologies will cause people to question their authority and ability to influence others. Ironically, the reverse is true. When leaders are willing to openly confess to mistakes, they build trust with their employees. They develop a culture of transparency where people are free to pursue ideas without fear of failure. To err is human – even for the most experienced among us.

Owning mistakes takes great courage and confidence. It says, "I'm responsible." Whether there was intent is irrelevant. Whether the leader was directly or indirectly responsible for the mistake doesn't matter. Influential leaders recognize, own and accept blame rather than pointing fingers. They acknowledge that success isn't about them but rather the goal, the priority and the team that achieves it.

Take a stand and own your mistakes with these seven guidelines.

1. Know when an apology is warranted.

Recent studies indicate that women apologize more often than men. It's not that men are reluctant to admit wrongdoing; instead, they have different ideas about what warrants an apology. Women say "I'm sorry" more often than men because they perceive situations and possible wrongdoings differently, apologizing even when the receiver isn't offended by the situation. Men are less likely to acknowledge guilt simply because they don't believe wrongdoing occurred. 

To know when an apology is warranted, prioritize the receiver over your interpretation of events. Pause to consider if a real injustice occurred, and take the time to recognize how the receiver may have interpreted the action and if it hurt their feelings.

2. Admission is key.

Admitting you were wrong is the most significant step. Studies have shown that the most essential component of an apology is admitting wrongdoing. Don't wait for others to go first. Instead, step up and take ownership. Lead the way by making the mistake public knowledge and apologizing for the wrongdoing. Don't wait until others ask for or demand an apology. Even if you believe a more senior leader should take ownership of the mistake, step up and do it first. You'll create the open dialogue needed for others to follow and admit their participation, if any.

If no one follows, don't force the issue. People know when they played a part in mistakes, and it's up to them to admit ownership. Be the bigger person by setting the example and taking ownership.

3. Be personal.

The method of apology is as important as the message itself. Recognize when a mistake requires a face-to-face admission and an apology. Don't rely on technology to do your heavy lifting. Instead, acknowledge others in person. Look them in the eye and apologize. If face-to-face interactions aren't possible, pick up the phone. Let the offending person hear your voice and acknowledge your sincerity.

4. Be specific.

Know what you are apologizing for beforehand. Don't rush to apologize without all the facts. The affected person needs to know what you are apologizing for. People will question your sincerity if you rush to apologize without knowing exactly why. Vague apologies hold no power. Research indicates that no apology is better than a half-apology. Knowing the facts will help you thoroughly state why you are apologizing. It allows you to elaborate on the reason and acknowledge greater ownership.

5. Consider your words.

Before rushing into an apology, consider how the receiver will interpret what you're saying and how you say it. First, think about what you will say. Don't just contemplate your words; think about how others may hear them. What we say when admitting a mistake can affect our trustworthiness in relationships moving forward. If we don't consider our words carefully, we can add insult to injury and further jeopardize our connection.

6. Own the mistake.

Placing blame or trying to justify your actions will diminish the power of an apology. Using excuses to justify your actions or shortcomings will only intensify feelings of rejection, animosity, anger and pain. Don't try to defend yourself either. This will make the apology appear insincere. Simply own your mistake. Acknowledge what you should have done differently and commit to making a change going forward.

7. Don't apologize to empathize.

Apologies are often used in unwarranted situations. When you attempt to empathize with someone undergoing a tough situation, an apology isn't necessary. You can acknowledge what someone is going through without apologizing for the situation. Apologies are used to admit guilt. If you didn't cause the problem, you don't owe anyone an apology. Instead, consider asking what you can do to help, or listen with intent and acknowledge the person's situation with an open heart.

All of us make mistakes. Acknowledging and owning those mistakes demonstrates responsibility and maturity in us as leaders. Apologies allow us to build stronger, trustworthy relationships with those around us. Owning our mistakes also provides a great example for our teams, helping us grow as professionals and in our roles as leaders. 

Image Credit: one_photo/Shutterstock
Stacey Hanke
Stacey Hanke Member
Stacey Hanke is author of the book; Influence Redefined…Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Monday to Monday®. She is also co-author of the book; Yes You Can! Everything You Need From A To Z To Influence Others To Take Action. Stacey is founder of Stacey Hanke Inc. She has trained and presented to thousands to rid business leaders of bad body language habits and to choose words wisely in the financial industry to the healthcare industry to government and everyone in between. Her client list is vast from Coca-Cola, FedEx, Kohl’s, United States Army, Navy and Air Force, Publicis Media, Nationwide, US Cellular, Pfizer, GE, General Mills and Abbvie. Her team works with Directors up to the C-Suite. In addition to her client list, she has been the Emcee for Tedx. She has inspired thousands as a featured guest on media outlets including; The New York Times, Forbes, SmartMoney magazine, Business Week, Lifetime Network, Chicago WGN and WLS-AM. She is a Certified Speaking Professional—a valuable accreditation earned by less than 10% of speakers worldwide.