We all make mistakes. But many people drop "I'm sorry" into their emails as a matter of course -- they may feel that apologizing sets others at ease or avoids conflict. While a well-placed apology will sometimes smooth your path, it's best to save your apologies for times when you have actually made an error.

By definition, an apology indicates regret for having done something wrong. So should you apologize when:

  • It takes you a few days to get back to a client?
  • A report goes out late because someone sent vital information late?
  • A sun storm causes the internet to go out for a while?

In these and countless other cases, a regrettable event has happened, but you have done nothing wrong. You need to acknowledge the unfortunate reality without apologizing unnecessarily.

Before you leap to apologize, consider the potential downside of doing so too frequently. First, if you apologize too often, you might undermine others' confidence in your abilities. They may feel that a capable person does not always need to apologize. Second, the apology may create the impression that you are to blame for something that is not your fault.

The next time you are tempted to write "I'm sorry" for a minor inconvenience or a circumstance over which you had little control, try these tactics first:

  • Thank the person for their patience and understanding.
  • Express hope for a positive outcome.
  • Focus on the future.

Let's say your customer sent you an email, and it got lost in the deluge that is your inbox. It takes you four days to respond. Long response times are not the service you want to provide and are not what your customer expects. Nevertheless, rather than dwell on the past with, "I apologize for not getting back to you sooner," you could write, "Thank you so much for your patience." This approach praises them and gives them positive reinforcement for accepting that you are a human being with limitations. If they weren't feeling patient, they might start feeling patient now that you've praised them for it.

You may not need to fall on your sword when a client or colleague points out an error. Rather, you can write, "Thank you so much for bringing this situation to our attention." Thanking others, instead of apologizing, compliments them for having the traits you desire them to have -- namely patience and forbearance. It also shows that you are open to criticism, a fundamental part of sound communication.

Everything we feel a need to apologize for has already happened. It is in the past. You cannot change what has already happened. The more the person you're apologizing to, and you, keep your eyes glued to the rearview mirror, the more upset everyone will get. Whether your apology is warranted or not, you benefit from turning their attention to the future. By rapidly pivoting from the current situation into a positive future, you interrupt the pattern of peevishness and break the blame barrier.

For instance, consider a client who is unhappy because an important report went out late. This person has forgotten that they submitted the supporting information late, making it impossible for the final product to go out on time. They were fixated on the report's lateness and complained to the business owner. Rather than belabor the client's point, the business owner needed to unlatch the client from the negative event and shift the focus to a positive future. The only relevant question became, "What can we do moving forward to make sure this does not happen again?"

All of the suggestions above relate to cases when the unpleasant event is not your fault. A clear, sincere apology is in order if you or your organization genuinely made a mistake. Take responsibility. Don't blame or make excuses. Own the error and do whatever you can to provide a solution.

The biggest drawback of over-apologizing for minor events is this: If you employ the words "I'm sorry" and "I apologize" in response to a late email reply, what will you write when you make a mistake that costs the company a large contract? Will you say, "I'm really sorry"? Or maybe, "I am really, really sorry"? Words like "I apologize" and "I'm sorry" are powerful so long as we don't dilute their meaning by using them without good cause.

If you thank people, create hope, and turn their attention to the future, you might not need to apologize so often. Then if circumstances warrant a genuine apology, your readers will know you mean it.