“I Apologize”–How to Say It

I’ve been getting requests for tips on how to write an apology, and I am happy to oblige. Interestingly enough, the leading inquiry was how to apologize for missing a meeting.

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.

Graphic illustrating how to apologize for missing a meeting. It is important to note that when you write a letter of apology, that you need to focus on what your reader needs to know.

Let’s imagine that I am writing to apologize for missing a business meeting. My reader might have these questions (spoken or unspoken):

  1. What is this letter about? [This is always the reader’s first question.]
  2. Why did you miss the meeting?
  3. Couldn’t you have telephoned to let us know you would not be there?
  4. What will you do to make up for missing the meeting?
  5. 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.

More Suggestions:
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.


Related: How To Apologize To A Colleague In An Email

Other search spellings: apologise, aplogoy, aplogy, wrting, wirting, writng

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

3 comments on ““I Apologize”–How to Say It”

  • Lynn, I so appreciate your clarity in explaining how to apologize even when the situation may not be entirely your fault. You’re right–it clears the air!

    Last year my neighbor’s toy poodle crawled under our fence and attacked my large german shepherd. (You have to wonder what the little guy was thinking.) My dog, defending her territory, pinned the poodle, delivered a sharp bite to his back, and watched him scurry back under the fence. My neighbor was furious.

    Though I believed that my dog had done no wrong, I felt badly that her dog had been hurt. So I apologized with a simple note (on behalf of my dog) for the dog bite and gave them a small gift certificate to a pet store. That simple act has kept us on speaking terms.

    Thanks for contributing to a more civil world!

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