How to Make an Apology That Builds Trust

by | Sep 18, 2023

How to Make an Apology that Builds Trust – 

Regardless of where you live or what language you speak, we all make mistakes in life. Some people are true experts in repeatedly doing the wrong thing! And while this ability to make mistakes seems to come naturally, the skill of giving an apology after a mistake is something that far fewer people master.

For people who have not learned how to make an effective apology, the consequences can be huge; a poor apology may lead to broken trust and lost opportunities. On the other hand, research shows that offering an appropriate apology after a mistake can actually strengthen levels of trust, as relationships deepen by experiencing rupture and repair.

When moving to a new place or learning a new language, you must also learn new ways and words for making apologies that build trust instead of breaking it. For the next time you make a mistake, the following suggestions will help you apologize in English in a way that others receive well.


Situation #1: Late for an Appointment

An English teacher had a tutoring appointment with a new student on the far side of town. About two hours before the appointment, he checked his navigation app, saw the drive would take about 30 minutes, and then went back to work. When the time came to leave, he discovered that the drive time was now 45 minutes! He was going to be unavoidably late.

How to Make an Apology That Builds Trust Late for an Appointment

Being late for an appointment creates stress for everyone involved. When it comes to apologizing, the etiquette will vary depending on the type of appointment, the nature of the relationship, how late you are, and how often it happens! 

When apologizing for being late for an appointment, there are some things you should say, and some things you shouldn’t…

Do Say Things Like:
  • “I’m sorry I’m late.” (For short delays.)
  • “I apologize for being late.” (For longer delays, or for especially important appointments.)
  • “I’m sorry that I kept you waiting.”
  • “I hope I didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
  • “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”
Don’t Say:
  • “It wasn’t my fault.” (Don’t try to shift the blame; accept it.)
  • “You won’t believe the frustrating day I’ve had.” (This puts the attention on your emotions, rather than your partner’s.)
  • “It’ll never happen again.” (If it does happen again, this broken promise makes you appear less trustworthy.)

Here is how the English teacher apologized for being late:


A – He Was Proactive

Before getting in his car, he immediately texted his student with a brief apology:

“I’m so sorry, I will be 15 minutes late.”

People are much more open to an apology when it comes before the damage is done, rather than after. This teacher was able to warn his student about the change in plans, which helped lower the level of frustration in the situation.


B – He Was Specific

In his texted apology, the teacher gave specific information: “I will be 15 minutes late.” This allowed his student to be prepared for the delay. She was not left to wait and wonder; she knew exactly when her teacher would arrive.

She texted back to him, “OK no problem.”


C – He Was Personal

Once he arrived (15 minutes late), he offered a face-to-face apology, together with a short explanation:

“I’m sorry I was late. I checked the travel time earlier in the day, but I should have checked it later because I forgot about afternoon traffic.”

His apology was direct and took ownership of his mistake. The teacher didn’t ‘blame’ the traffic for his being late, he acknowledged that he should have double-checked his travel time. He kept it short and then got to work.


 D – He Didn’t Repeat the Mistake

The English teacher learned his lesson! For the next appointment, he checked his travel time later in the day, and also allowed himself additional extra time for any unexpected delays.

Even a sincere apology that is well received can turn to a negative memory if the person who apologized keeps making the same mistake in the future. Show that your apology was sincere by learning from the mistake and not repeating it.


Situation #2: A Forgotten Appointment

A coworker had agreed to help her team with a time-sensitive project. However, she double-booked herself and then forgot about the commitment that she had already made. When the time came, she was not available, which led to increased stress, frustration, and work for the other team members.

How to Make an Apology That Builds Trust

The mistake of completely forgetting an appointment intensifies the frustrations of Situation #1 while also adding some new dynamics. For this reason, good etiquette says that a more formal and detailed apology is usually necessary.

Here are some do’s and don’ts for apologizing after you have forgotten an appointment…

Do Say Things Like:
  • “I’m so, so sorry. I completely forgot.”
  • “I have no excuse.”
  • “You have every right to be disappointed.” (This shows respect for any hurt feelings that you caused.)
  • “I hope you can forgive me.”
  • “I don’t know how I could have forgotten.”
  • “How can I make this up to you?” (Meaning, how can I fix the difficulty I caused?)
Don’t Say:
  • “It was someone else’s fault.” (Again, don’t shift the blame.)
  • “You should have reminded me.” (This shifts the blame and also implies you don’t manage your schedule well.)
  • “You did fine without me.” (Don’t offer rationalizations that minimize other people’s feelings or experiences.)
  • “I’m not the only one who forgets things around here.” (Comparing your mistake to other people’s can appear to be manipulative.)

Here is how the coworker made an effective apology after forgetting the meeting appointment:


A – She Was Direct

She took the time to speak to every member of the team in person:

“I want to apologize for not being available earlier today. I know that made things harder for you. I don’t know how I could have forgotten, but I hope you will forgive me.”

Her directness and acknowledgment of the hardship she caused showed her coworkers that she valued their feelings and their time. It made it easier for them to forgive the mistake.


B – She Offered Repair

Her mistake had no immediate ‘fix’ available, because the appointment time had already finished, However, after apologizing to the team, she then connected with the team lead once again to make a new proposal:

“I know there is still some work to be done before the project deadline. How can I help? I have some time this afternoon or tomorrow morning. And this time I won’t forget!”

The team lead identified a specific portion of the project that still needed attention, and the coworker was able to help with it that afternoon. In the future, she tried to be more careful about recording all commitments into her calendar so such mistakes would not happen again.


Situation #3: Conflict with Neighbors

A couple living in a condominium hired a contractor to remodel their kitchen. During the project, a small water leak behind the dishwasher went unnoticed for a full day, damaging the ceiling of their downstairs neighbor. Fortunately, the contractor accepted responsibility and repaired the damage free of charge. However, the couple also wanted to repair their relationship with the family downstairs.

How to Make an Apology That Builds Trust

Conflicts with neighbors are often stressful, and can happen for a variety of reasons: loud noise, cigarette smoke, disagreements over parking spaces, the impact of pets or plants.

When a problem arises that requires you to make an apology to neighbors, here are some things that you should and shouldn’t say:…

 Do Say Things Like:
  •  “I’m very sorry for the inconvenience.”
  • “I appreciate having you as a neighbor.” (Because everyone loves a compliment!)
  • “I feel terrible about what happened.”
  • “What would you like me to do?” (Listen without interrupting, but don’t make any promises too quickly.)
Don’t Say:
  • “I’m sorry, but these things happen.” (Don’t rationalize; simply apologize.)
  • “I’m sorry you felt that way.” (This classic ‘non-apology’ does not take responsibility for mistakes.)
  • “There are some things I could complain about also.” (This escalates the disagreement.)
  • “It was very irresponsible of me to let this happen.” (In rare cases, by suggesting that you did something a reasonable person would not do, you may open the possibility that your neighbors could sue you for damages.)

Here is how the upstairs couple used good apology etiquette after the water leak was discovered:


A – They Took Charge

The couple immediately shut off their water and told the contractor about the problem. The same day, they introduced the contractor to the family downstairs and also left their contact information, saying:

“We’re so sorry for the inconvenience. Please let us know if there is anything you need.”


B – They Followed Up

After the contractor reported that he completed the repair, the couple again talked to their downstairs neighbors:

“We wanted to check and make sure you are happy with the repair work. Again, we are so sorry for the inconvenience and feel terrible that this happened. Is there anything else we can help with?”

After the kitchen remodel was complete, the couple baked cookies in their new oven and gave a plate to their neighbors as a gift. Along with the gift they included a small card that said:

“Wishing all the best, from our kitchen to yours.”

– – –

Thanks for spending time with this article on learning how to apologize in English.

For more on making an effective apology, you may be interested in A Good Apology: Four Steps to Making Things Right by Molly Howes (available on Amazon)

Those wishing to go deeper may enjoy Why Won’t You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner (available on Amazon)


Also, be sure to see check out some of my other posts


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Mark Pedrin

Mark Pedrin


Mark is an English instructor and communication specialist. He loves helping people develop language skill and insight so that they can reach their personal and professional goals.