Saying I'm Sorry: Verbal Apologies 101

Saying I'm sorry is easy when you know what to say and how to say it. We've discussed the benefits of an apology letter so now let's take a look at how to say I'm sorry verbally and what you need to consider before delivering your apology.

One of the major differences between offering a verbal rather than a written apology is that you are NOT giving the recipient time to think about their response. Therefore, you need to plan out how you'll respond to their reaction, whether it's positive or negative. If you aren't comfortable with that, then maybe a written apology is a better option for you.

Just like with an apology letter, 'saying I'm sorry' verbally requires that you think through certain surrounding conditions to help you to determine the best approach for delivery.

Below are some basic guidelines on how to say sorry through a verbal apology whether face-to-face or by phone.

Apologizing in Person

Saying I'm sorry in person is a great approach to resolving an issue. It shows integrity, humility and a willingness to accept responsibility all while looking a person in the eye.

  How      When Why
Scheduled Meeting

When the relationship is more formal and/or more distant—often in a business setting.

Letting a person know that you want to meet with them face-to-face for the simple purpose of saying I'm sorry is a respectful and courteous way of mending fences.

Over Coffee

When the relationship is close and the mistake is not too severe.

Inviting the person out for a coffee has the same benefit as a scheduled meeting with the added element of an activity shared by friends.

Over Lunch

When this is part of your normal routine with the recipient or when you feel the gesture of a lunch invitation feels right.

Usually appropriate when the mistake is a little more significant, or in cases where the recipient considers the mistake serious enough to be very hurt, insulted or angry.

A lunch invitation lets the recipient know that a more lengthy discussion is in order, and that YOU think YOUR mistake is serious enough to warrant the additional time and that a more lengthy discussion is likely.

The gesture of the invitation itself also becomes part of the apology.

Over Dinner

When the relationship is intimate.

When the friendship is strong.

When a long discussion is necessary to convey the many reasons why your apology is important and a more formal evening meeting is warranted.

Emotions can run high depending on the situation and infraction. A restaurant invitation will provide added protection from the negative effects of a very emotional reaction to your apology.

However, take into consideration that the recipient may deserve the right to react emotionally (or tends to resolve issues more effectively through emotions). In that case, the invitation should be for a home cooked meal.


How to Say I'm Sorry by Phone

Saying I'm sorry over the phone rather than in person can be appropriate if either party isn't comfortable with confrontation.

  How      When Why
Local Call

When the relationship is more formal or not a personal one. (e.g. parent/teacher, fellow club member etc...)

Picking up the phone and saying I'm sorry in a timely manner is often the best way to make things right again.

Long Distance

When the relationship is close.

When you want to let the recipient know that you're willing to take extra effort to make things right.

Receiving a long distance call as opposed to an email tells the recipient that you respect them enough, and are sufficiently worried about the effects of your mistake to incur additional costs to resolve the issue.


Verbal apologies can be equally effective in person or by phone— but again, both the circumstances and the recipient's personality should be considered. It's often the better approach, but it may lead to confrontation—depending on the seriousness of the infraction, the amount of pain it caused, and the recipient's personality and character.

Finally, there is one other option that allows you to enjoy the benefits of saying I'm sorry through both a written and verbal apology. It's —a hand-delivered written apology. It gives the recipient time to absorb the contents of your letter and can provide a better foundation for constructive dialogue and discussions.

Learn about the different benefits of saying sorry with an apology letter.