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I’m Sorry You . . . Did It to Yourself

The other day I participated in an online chat about cats being allowed to roam free in our neighborhood. Opinions for and against piled up minute by minute, with some people expressing strong views. Reading the comments, I noticed this one:

I’m sorry you were offended by my tone.

The passive verb “were offended” leads to a non-apology apology. It’s an “It’s-your-fault” apology. Compare this wording, which takes responsibility for the tone:

I’m sorry my tone offended you.

A recent angry email reply from a blog reader referred to me as “impolite” and used several hostile phrases to characterize my response to her original message. This email shocked me because I had taken the time to answer the individual’s question, and I always intend to communicate positively. Nevertheless, I had failed, and my conciseness had come across as brusque.

In my reply to the angry email, politeness was essential. That’s why I quickly changed the wording of the opening sentence. I changed:

I am sorry you felt my response was discourteous.


I am sorry that my response came across as discourteous.


Do you recognize the problem with the original statements? Both of them say “I am sorry you . . . ” In print such statements can come across as blame shifting: “I’m sorry you are overly sensitive” or “I am sorry you are a jerk.” Consider these examples:

I am sorry you took my comment the wrong way. 

I am sorry you didn’t let me know I needed to be on time. 

I am sorry you didn’t confirm our appointment. 

I am sorry you didn’t understand that I was joking. 


Here’s how to accept blame rather than shifting it to the other person:

I am sorry my comment came across the wrong way.

I am sorry that I didn’t realize I needed to be on time.

I am sorry I forgot about our appointment.

I am sorry that my joke bombed.


It doesn’t help to try to share the blame. These statements won’t build relationships:

I am sorry but you’re to blame too.

I am sorry but you have to accept your part in this.


Yes, those statements may be true, but they are not true apologies. If the situation requires an apology, give one.


But what if you don’t feel your behavior requires an apology? Let’s say you have done nothing wrong.

Apologize anyway. The relationship requires an apology. Although you might feel good defending your actions or pointing out the other person’s role in the situation, apologizing will help you move on. It will also earn you points as a mature professional who chooses his or her battles.

In my email exchange with the angry blog reader, I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I had simply been concise and direct. Yet my message did not come across that way–I can’t argue about that. So I might as well admit that my message failed and apologize.

Do you have more examples of non-apology apologies? Please share them.

By the way, the non-apology in the cat-roaming chat did not end the exchange. The other person wrote back defending her feelings, and then the first person did the same. And so it goes.


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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.

11 comments on “I’m Sorry You . . . Did It to Yourself”

  • I appreciate this post because we all need to be reminded to structure our response when it may also reflect our own defensiveness. Whenever we use “you” in a response about any topic, we are not taking responsibility for what we brought to the original communication. Thanks for the reminder Lynn.

  • My mother taught me that a proper apology will have no “but”s or “you”s anywhere in sight. Wise woman.

  • Good question and notes. This debate is often also happens here in Italy and the right response is what has been in your post.

  • Thank you Lynn. I love Shelley’s comment as well. I would just like to touch upon the slippery slope that comes with apologizing even if the fault is not yours. I do believe that it does help the professional relationship move forward, but it should not be overused. I know from personal experience that people who continue to apologize start to lose credibility and become a kind of “scapegoat”. It is definitely a professional tactic, but should be used with caution.
    Thanks again for your posts!

  • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Tommaso, Kristyna, Virginia, and Anita.

    Tommaso, thank you for letting us know that the same issue occurs in Italy. I wonder whether it occurs all around the world.

    Kristyna, that’s an excellent caution, and I’m glad you brought it up. Indeed, sometimes we need to push back and say “Let’s discuss what happened” rather than instantly accept blame. When I mentioned apologizing even when we don’t think we did anything wrong, I was thinking of times when we could not have known we would upset someone, yet we did. Sometimes we even might have had a little voice telling us not to do what we did. I know in my original response to the woman who became upset with me, I did have a momentary thought that I should elaborate. When I ignored it, my conciseness got me into trouble.

    Virginia, you brought me a big smile.

    Anita, well-said. I agree.


  • I love this column and your advice. Thank you for helping us become better communicators at work and with our personal relationships.

  • Excellent advice, Lynn. When an apology is warranted, be direct and accept responsibility. I agree with Kristyna that over-apologizing can have negative consequences.

  • I’m leading a 15-20 members team since several years and can confirm on the field that “Let’s discuss…” before anything else is a winning strategy.

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