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How to apologize remotely

Christine Cha

Christine Cha, a Senior Engineer here, wrote this post on her own personal blog and we liked it so much we also wanted to publish it here. As all of us who've been lucky enough to be able to work from home a year into this pandemic certainly know, never seeing your colleagues in person creates a different dynamic than seeing them around the office every day. This extends to apologies. Read all about what Christine has learned about making amends with colleagues and co-workers who you never see beyond a computer screen

After a year and a half of working remotely, a lot of things have assumed normalcy. Sharing screens. Cooking lunch. Finding headset-friendly hairdos.

Early on, one of my colleagues reached out for a quick but sincere apology (for interrupting me, even though I hadn’t even noticed!). I was initially surprised, then impressed, then moved. Since then, through personal attempts and observations, I’ve noted a pattern of factors that can make a remote apology more or less effective.

1. Apologize early. If an apology feels absolutely necessary, it’s already very late. Offering a moment of vulnerability and compassion early on can prevent larger conflicts from ever growing. If you realize someone could have been negatively affected by your words or actions, it doesn’t hurt to check in. A preemptive apology might feel a bit silly at worst, but at best, it can be the turning point of a relationship.

2. Be conscious of your method. Each case is unique, and there’s no right setting for an apology. Scheduling a video call might be critical when discussing larger conflicts with more nuance, but might feel overly formal for smaller issues. A chat message might have the quickest turnaround for a mild mistake, but could cause further misunderstanding when tone of voice is important. Scheduling a meeting ahead of time might give you both a week of anxiety, but preparation time might be necessary for heavier topics. Again, there won’t be a right answer, but try to be as considerate as possible with your strategy.

3. Offer options. “Can you speak now?” Regardless of intention, this type of question presents a lot of pressure to say yes. Some other similarly leading phrases include “If you’re open to it” or “If you don’t mind”. These types of phrases are hard to reject, and that becomes the other person’s burden to carry. Instead, offer multiple unweighted options.

“Can we talk now, if you’re free?” → “There’s no rush. I have time this afternoon or later in the week.”
“Can you jump on a call?” → “I’m happy to just talk over chat or schedule a call.”

4. Prepare. Think about what you’re going to say. What do you want to communicate? What are you actually apologizing for? Unlike more fluid in-person conversations, people tend to take turns speaking when remote. Prepare to be clear and concise, so that you leave as much room as possible for listening.

5. Apologize without justification or defense. This is unrelated to being remote, but it’s too important to forget. For me, this is one of the hardest steps. It feels natural to want to explain yourself. “I’m sorry I raised my voice and insulted you, but it’s because I was made upset earlier by X.” This statement may be true, but regardless of the justification, this is *not* an apology. This is an explanation. As a rule of thumb, if you feel the urge to say “but” or any of its synonyms — stop talking right there!

“I’m sorry I said those things, but I’ve been very stressed out lately due to personal issues.” → “I’m sorry I said those things.”
“I’m sorry I kept interrupting you, but you speak very quietly and it’s hard to hear.” → “I’m sorry I kept interrupting you.”

If you still feel an urge to offer explanation, at least hold it until after their response. Explaining your behavior sounds very similar to justification, and can cancel the sincerity of your apology.

Finally, apologize for what you did, not how they felt. “I’m sorry you feel this way” is not an apology. In fact, it’s more like an accusation, implying that they are in fact the cause of the problem.

6. Leave space. One of the most difficult parts of communicating remotely is dealing with empty space. Awkward silence. But it’s critical to leave room once you’ve finished your apology. It can be just as difficult to accept an apology as to offer one (and their preparation time was likely much shorter!). Wait and listen to their full response.

7. Take action and accept feedback. What concrete steps can you take to learn from this in the future? “I’ll bring this up in the next 1:1 with my manager to see how I can improve my communication tone.” “Can you think of any other messages I’ve posted that felt condescending?” It’s difficult to maintain transparency and trust in remote relationships. Steps toward change need to be extremely clear and specific to be recognized.

8. Leave the door open. When communicating remotely, there are fewer chances to reconvene spontaneously. To reduce any lingering tension, be clear that you welcome future conversation. A simple lighthearted follow-up can be the difference between not chatting again for months and rebuilding a friendship.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t go well. Apologies are difficult. And weird. Some conflicts take much longer than others to resolve. We’ve all been stuck inside for a year.

Besides, the only true apology is a change in behavior. 🌸

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