when to say sorry

Knowing when to say “sorry” is a dilemma many of us have known. It can set a difficult choice. On the one hand we all know deep down how important it is to apologise when we have hurt or harmed someone else, on the other hand, our instincts for self protect often prevent us from stepping up and making the apology at the right moment.

There are times when we’ve been hurt or annoyed by by someone we know. We can all think of lingering grievances that have destroyed relationships.

Many of us can think of a situation where we could offer an apology but have chosen not to. Sometimes we make the link between a sincere expression of regret and its healing properties, but more often we choose to ignore this and instead find excuses to justify our refusal to apologise.

Making an apology can be a powerful first step to remedy a troubled relationship, but we generally have a range of reasons for not offering it.

Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, starts out by saying:

“Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

Many workplace relationships could benefit from this process, yet business cultures can positively discourage apology on the basis that it is somehow associated with blame or weakness; apologising for something at work equates to being ‘wrong’, and being wrong is not a comfortable place for most of us in a culture that encourages us to be ‘right’ as much as possible.

Better late than never

It can often be hard to know just how to apologise, particularly when the ‘offence’ happened some time ago, and  common response is to “let sleeping dogs lie”. In some cases this may be good advice, but it can also become a self-serving mantra to avoid taking responsibility for patching things up. Perhaps you have wanted to apologise for something but have not been sure of how to go about it. Well, there’s a website for everything and here is one to help with that.

More generally though, it is always a good idea to reflect on the quality of the relationships around us, and this is true at work as elsewhere. Part of this may be that we become aware of our part in a disagreement or some other distancing factor in a relationship.

A sincere expression of regret is often the first step to better relations, and this doesn’t have to hint at taking blame. For example, a simple opener would be “We don’t seem to have been getting along as well as we used to. I’m sorry about that and I’d like to do something about it.” This expresses regret for the failure of the relationship but does not say “…and it’s all my fault”.

Not for the faint-hearted

Apologising, particularly when taking responsibility for having wronged someone, is the mark of the strong. A quote attributed to Steven Covey goes:

“It takes a great deal of character strength to apologise quickly… A person must possess himself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologise.”

Of course no matter who said it this goes little way to correcting the social acceptability of refusing to say sorry. There are many more quotes on why we shouldn’t apologise than there are on why we should. So why not buck the trend? Who could you say sorry to and brighten both your days? I’ve included a few do’s and don’t’s below to help, see what you think.

And if you are still hooked on winning, remember that somebody once said An apology is a good way to have the last word.”


  • Make sure you mean it; sincerity is everything
  • Acknowledge the hurt and the harm done
  • Do it for yourself; being able to express yourself sincerely is life-enhancing
  • Match the right level of formality; the graver the offence (in their view) the more formal the apology should be
  • Err on the side of caution; they may see it as very serious, even if you don’t
  • Be prepared to give an explanation if it is relevant; but beware of it sounding like an excuse
  • Accept rejection with dignity; do it for yourself, not for thanks or recognition
  • Give them time; it can be almost as hard to accept an apology as to give one
  • Appear contrite. An arrogant apology is worse than no apology.


  • Expect miracles, you may be ready to say sorry, they may not be ready to hear it
  • Link the apology to an excuse or justification
  • Rush it. You may feel nervous but speak clearly; mumbling or hesitation will weaken the message
  • Make it appear that they are to blame (even if they are partly responsible)
  • Put it off.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.