Use Our ‘Three Levels of Apology’ to Dig Yourself Out of a hole.
In all probability, you will have a wide range of jobs throughout your career, which means that over time, you’re going to sincerely apologize to lots of different people, making amends for various mistakes with lots of remorseful emails!
We are only human; mistakes and errors in judgment are just part of our fabric. But the problem is that many people have absolutely no idea how to apologize in a classy, polished, and meaningful manner.
We hate to see any of our Wordlab readers in a pickle, so let’s put things right and help you out of this sticky situation, shall we?
Finding the Perfect Dose of Sorry
Too much of an apology will appear groveling, which no one appreciates because it is awkward and cringe-inducing. On the other extreme, entirely skipping over an apology in some vein hope of our mistake going unnoticed will only cause frustration and make us appear arrogant or uncaring.
The ideal is to find that sweet spot of sorry. Dignified and heartfelt, without being too over the top. A perfect pinch of humble pie should balance out any negative experience you have caused.
A Commonly Overlooked Subject
This subject isn’t actually addressed too much, which we find a little odd; it is, after all, an important point and people are prone to getting it wrong. We aim to put that right through this article and get your apology game razor sharp, with just the right amount of ‘sorry.’
There are apology letter templates available, but will they truly help? Everything has a context, and by using some arbitrary template, you are liable to lose all feeling in the sincerity. Writing something under your creative prose rather than following cold, robotic apology letter templates is far better.
The ‘Levels’ Strategy
Pro Tip From an Expert in Errors! 🤦
Ok… Just how do you apologize professionally for a mistake? in terms of structure, there is no one size fits all. You need to apply levels. The bigger the mistake, the higher the intensity. Use our three-level strategy below to apply the right amount of remorse, and you will be fine. Finger crossed!
We need to figure out the degree of remorse required because, obviously, apologies should carry a different type of punch, depending on the error, offense or mistake caused.
So, we have prepared three levels of apology, each varying in intensity and energy. Let’s get to it.
Apology Level One – The Non-apology Email
Do you need to cancel a meeting or push a meeting back? Forgot to call back a client? Maybe you have misunderstood a basic instruction that your boss gave you. Well done. You have lightly disrupted someone’s working day.
These trivial incidents are part of everyday professional life and are nothing to worry about. You have likely had too much on your plate, and, as a result, minor errors have crept into your otherwise efficient routine. We all do it. You haven’t ruined someone’s day or cost your company any money. No one is getting fired for something incidental and small like that, but it should not go unmentioned because that wouldn’t be polite, would it?
Bosses, co-workers, and clients all experience mild disruption at the hands of their peers from time to time. In the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal and probably does not warrant an actual heartfelt apology.
However, you need to acknowledge the mistake. To do that, we will make a positive out of a minor situation and thank them. That’s correct! Instead of showing how sorry we are, we will show how grateful we are. Genius, I know. Let me explain through a couple of examples.
You promised a project would be complete in three days, and it’s been four. Again, it’s not a huge oversight, and a sincere apology might be too much. Instead, let’s flip the situation and thank them for waiting.
Examples of the Thank You Apology
“Thank you for being so patient while I worked on this project. I really wish I could have gotten it over sooner, and I am grateful for you allowing me to complete it without chasing me. I appreciate it!”
See what we did there? We didn’t actually say sorry – but the tone of the email is apologetic in nature.
Or maybe you didn’t show up for a group meeting. It wasn’t an essential gathering, just another of those pointless team zoom calls we all seem to get dragged into these days. You couldn’t attend and forgot to let anyone know. It’s not ideal and looks rude, but it isn’t the end of the world, and no one will be placing a curse on you anytime soon. But you need to acknowledge it. So let’s do that.
“Thanks so much for filling in without me. I wish I could have been there, but my day was so busy that I got tied down. I appreciate it and promise to make the next one!”
Your Regular Intro & Ending
No need to start or end the email with anything special. Your regular greeting signoff will be fine. Best regards, kind regards, cheers, thanks – whatever you usually go with.
So, in summary, this non-apology approach should be used only for very light inconveniences. Be polite and breezy, try not to be overly formal, and let them know you appreciate them. Do that, and you should be fine.
● Don’t say sorry. Say thank you!
● Keep it friendly, not remorseful or dour.
● Apply the usual greeting and ending.
Apology Level Two – The Textbook Approach Email
You are obviously at fault, having made an error that directly affected someone, and your ears are now burning because they are rightfully cursing you. In other words, you screwed up.
What could have caused this misdemeanor? Well, maybe you set up a rather important face-to-face meeting with a client and didn’t show up, but worse, you didn’t call them to cancel. Embarrassing, incredibly awkward, and highly unprofessional. What on earth were you thinking?
Or maybe during a heated phone call with your boss, you lost control of your temper and said something awful that you now deeply regret.
Now, this level of apology should have been baked into our DNA early in life because it applies to a vast array of situations, and as kids, we are prone to screwing up. So, the premise and intent are the same, and you should have no problem arriving at the right intensity because, chances are, you have had to offer a personal apology many times before.
The same premise is no different for a business apology – for the most part, at least.
The critical thing here is not to apologize too much. Get the apology into the email early, in the first sentence, but only do it once. You will pressure the recipient to console you if you make the common mistake of over-apologizing several times. That’s not fair on them and will only irritate them even more.
Always end with a promise to change something about yourself or your methods and that you will never make the same mistake again through these changes.
Let’s get into it with an example
“I am incredibly sorry for shouting at you during our phone call – I was way out of order and deeply regretted losing my cool. I will try and work on keeping my composure during pressured situations and think before speaking next time. It won’t happen again, I assure you.”
Don’t offer an excuse such as, “I have been under so much pressure from a huge workload, and I lost my cool.” This isn’t the time for excuses so just own up, say you are sorry and promise never to make the same mistake again.
For this level of apology, you need to change up your usual ending by reinforcing the apology. Reassure the recipient that they are valued with something like, “Despite how it might appear, I appreciate and respect you.”
● Apologize once (don’t over-apologize.)
● Offer a solution going forward.
● No excuses
● Show that you regret any inconvenience caused.
● End by confirming your value of the recipient.
Apology Level Three – The Damage Limitation Email
Wowzers. That was rather a silly thing to do, wasn’t it? Everyone knows how dangerous social media can be, with prying eyes everywhere and colleagues ready to snitch on you. Posting on Facebook that your boss is a jerk and you hate your job will always lead to disaster. You should know that by now!
Or maybe you have entered an incorrect email address and sent something highly classified to a person outside of the company, and it somehow ended up in the hands of a competitor.
They are both examples of the kind of blunder which should, in all probability, result in you getting fired or losing a client. You are in grave trouble, and a serious, next-level apology is warranted. Let’s just hope it will be enough to save your job or keep your client.
Chill a Little
Before you send your email, try and calm yourself down a little. Yes, this is a bigtime balls-up, and yes, you are in serious hot water, but worrying will not help, and will affect the composition of your email. So, if you can… chill a little.
Remember, we all make mistakes, none of us are perfect, and one day you will look back on this situation as something you learned from.
Many years ago, I remember a developer at my old workplace of 300 people misconfigured the company website SSL certificate, costing them $25,000. It was a massive oversight, but before the company could fire him, he made a quite brilliant strategic move.
He emailed the boss and promised to become an absolute expert on all things relating to website security, assuring he would learn from the mistake and turn it into a positive over time. This guy eventually became an absolute authority on the subject and probably saved the company fortunes, over time, by ensuring the website was optimized against fraud, theft, and hacking.
A good apology will turn the situation around if you truly nail it. Let’s look at how we can do that.
Start your email by using the textbook approach. In other words, own up to your mistake, tell them you are incredibly sorry and take responsibility for your error.
In the next paragraph, describe the consequences of your actions and show empathy. From the recipient’s point of view, you understand how this might look. You can see now how they must be feeling. You didn’t before, but now you do, and you feel awful.
Tell them that you will learn from this, use the experience to grow and that you are ready to repair the mistake by any means possible. They need to hear more than just an apology – they want solutions.
Qualify Your Moment of Madness
Unlike the first two levels above, you might need to throw in an excuse this time – a reason why you caused this to happen. You need to own up and accept full responsibility. Never shift the blame. But at this stage, it won’t hurt to convey external influences or explain further details that might have helped cause the error.
Time for another example, using the scenario of trashing your employer on social media.
“I am so incredibly sorry. I feel terribly ashamed about the Facebook post, and I can see now what a poor error in judgment it was. I’m not sure what I was thinking – it is unlike me to say something so nasty, I have certainly never done so before, and I didn’t even mean it.”
In the next paragraph, show empathy.
“I can only imagine how upset you must have been. Reading such a horrible thing about yourself must have hurt your feelings, and I feel awful not just for any personal offense caused but for possibly tarnishing the company name.”
Learn From Your Blunder
End with a solution that demonstrates you want to fix the situation moving forward.
“This whole incident has helped me to see things from your perspective. Being responsible for so many employees must be pretty stressful at times. The last thing you need is one of those employees making your position even harder through something like a silly social media post.”
Unlike the previous two levels, we will end this with a very mild excuse and a final, additional apology.
“Again, I am so very sorry. I am upset with myself for showing such a poor lack of maturity, and I must stress once more that I did not mean anything I said. You might have noticed I have been putting in extra hours recently because I have so much on my plate. This added pressure affected my judgment.”
Finally, an offer of restitution.
“If there is anything I can do to improve this situation, please let me know. I want to fix this.”
● Start with an apology, and follow up by showing empathy.
● Demonstrate that you understand how your error made the recipient feel.
● Offer a low-key explanation – but also take full responsibility.
● Offer restitution in some way
The Basics – Subject Line
You need to briefly hint at your error and nothing more. Don’t use the subject line to say how sorry you are. If we are using the social media post example in which you disrespected your boss or client, just use the subject line to touch on that as follows, below.
(Subject) My awful social media post.
The Basics – Beginning and Ending
This isn’t much different from sending a regular professional email  . With level one, you can afford to be casual if you want to. But with levels two and three, remain super courteous and professional with your start  and end  . Begin with your usual greeting, followed by the customer’s name, if applicable (or boss, colleague, whatever the context is.)
That’s common sense, really. If you have just rubbished your boss all over Facebook, you will hardly begin an apology email with Hey Bro.
Disaster into Triumph!
You went into this situation looking like the bad guy. But hey pesto, just like that, you have become the most sincere, responsible, professional individual at your place of business. Take full responsibility with a genuine personal apology, and it is possible to come out of this smelling of roses.
You never know. At times, life has a strange way of flipping things on its head. It’s quite possible you might even come out of this more appreciated and respected than you were prior to your screw-up.
Weaponized for Future Fouls!
Suitably armed with our three levels, you are now prepared for any flaw, foul, or terrible thunderous blunder. And remember, we all get things wrong from time to time. Life would be rather dull if we never made a mistake. Relax, take a breath, and don’t worry – we will have you back in those good books in no time.
Do you have any funny, interesting, or downright horrific stories of errors you have made which needed a solid apology email? Go ahead and share them in the comments! It’s nice to know there are like-minded error-prone folks out there just half of us.