I've been getting requests for tips on how to write an apology, and I am happy to oblige.
For every piece I write--whether it's a report, a thank you, a proposal, a recommendation, a resume, a request, or an apology--I think about my reader's questions. These are the questions my reader would be asking if we were talking. Of course, we won't actually be talking when the other person reads my words, but I think of the letter as a conversation.
Let's imagine that I am writing to apologize for missing a business meeting. My reader might have these questions (spoken or unspoken):
- What is this letter about? [This is always the reader's first question.]
- Why did you miss the meeting?
- Couldn't you have telephoned to let us know you would not be there?
- What will you do to make up for missing the meeting?
- Can we count on you to attend future meetings?
These are questions my reader is probably wondering about--not necessarily ones that he or she would actually ask.
To write the message, I answer my reader's questions. For example:
Dear Dr. Young,
[What is this letter about?]
Please accept my apology for missing the planning meeting on Friday afternoon. I am very sorry about my absence.
[Why did you miss the meeting?]
I was just leaving my office to meet with you, when I received an urgent call that my 4-year-old daughter had had an accident at her preschool and had perhaps broken her arm. [Couldn't you have telephoned to let us know you would not be there?] I left immediately for the preschool and did not realize I had left your telephone number in my office. That is why I didn't phone to let you know I would not be there. I am very sorry for this oversight.
[What will you do to make up for missing the meeting?]
I have already spoken with Dee Clarke about what happened at the meeting. She informed me of the two tasks that have been assigned to me.
[Can we count on you to attend future meetings?]
Once again, I am sorry for missing the meeting on Friday. I look forward to actively participating in our future sessions.
When you write a letter of apology, focus on what your reader needs to know. At the same time, be gracious and accept responsibility. It is not appropriate to blame another person. In the letter above, for example, if I had missed the meeting because my boss kept me waiting for an hour, I would not mention that fact in the apology. I would say simply that I had been "unavoidably delayed by an event in my office."
If you must apologize to someone you dislike, imagine that person as a friend. Think of him or her positively so that your message comes across as respectful and sincere.
Don't put yourself in the trap of refusing to apologize. Even when you can't see that you have done anything wrong, something happened that led to the need for an apology. In such cases, apologize for "the part I played in our misunderstanding" or for "not being able to respond more effectively." Writing an apology is good for the soul. It clears the air and allows you and the recipient of your message to move on and let go of negative feelings.
For examples of letters on a wide range of topics, I recommend the book Business Letters for Busy People, edited by John A. Carey. It includes a CD Rom with all the letters included in the book. Once you select an appropriate sample letter, you can easily adapt it to your needs.
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