How To Apologize: Research-Backed Advice
When it comes right down to it, we make a lot of mistakes.
Whether you simply left the lights on at home or ran your car into the back end of a Prius in the parking lot, we’re bound to make mistakes. Pretty much on a daily basis.
Not all mistakes are big, but you can bet that we’ll do something, whether by accident or with intent, that hurts another person. Or at least inconveniences them in some way. It happens, no one’s perfect. What matters is what you do after you make a mistake.
So is every apology made equal? It appears that they aren’t. Researchers who have studied making amends, have identified what makes an effective apology. If you’re like me, I thought that a good apology simply meant that it had to be sincere. There appears to be quite a bit more to it than that.
So swallow your pride, take a deep breath, and let’s take an evidenced-based look at what makes an effective apology. Not only how to apologize, but what we need to include, what not to do, the contexts we should consider, and what the benefits are in the long run.
The Biggest Mistakes We Make When Apologizing
Usually we have good intentions. It’s just that we don’t always execute our intentions in the best of ways. And sometimes, we – usually without realizing it – make the apology more about ourselves than about the offended party.
Dr. Heidi Halvorson, researcher at Columbia University and author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It:
“Don’t justify. Most people make the mistake of making their apologies about themselves – about their own intentions, thoughts, and feelings.
‘I didn’t mean to . . .’
‘I was trying to . . .’
‘I didn’t realize . . .’
‘I had a good reason . . .’”
When someone makes a mistake and hurts you, do you think you’d really want to hear about them? Probably not, at least not at first. So when you are apologizing, remember to make sure it’s about them. Heidi tells us how:
“Imagine their perspective. Specifically, focus on how they have been affected by your mistake, on how they are feeling, and on what they need from you in order to move forward.”
Other research has identified four of the common techniques used in bad apologies. These techniques are usually done to shift blame or responsibility and are defensive in nature.
1. Justification – You justify your behavior or intentions. You defend yourself and what you did. An example would be, “I’m sorry that I kicked you out, but I did it for the right reasons”
2.Victim blaming – Attempting to place some or all of the responsibility for the offense on the victim “If you gave me more freedom, I wouldn’t feel the need to be dishonest”
3.Excuse – One of the more common apology mistakes you can probably spot. This means shifting responsibility to someone else or the circumstances. “I was very busy and in a hurry”
4.Minimization – Downplaying what happened or the consequences of your actions. Saying things like “It’s in the past.” or “It was just a joke.”
Why do we fall on these strategies when trying to apologize?
Researchers believe that we are trying to protect our own identities and integrity. No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person. Admitting fault is like saying we are – in a small way – a hypocrite or a failure.
Six Parts of an Effective Apology
One of the worst things that can happen is when you are genuinely trying to apologize, and your apology is rejected. There can be several reasons why you may not be forgiven. They could still be upset and need time to think it over. But it could also be because your apology just wasn’t that great.
Did you sabotage the apology, even though you had the best of intentions? Was it lacking in some way?
According to researcher and professor emeritus Roy Lewicki from Ohio State, there are six parts that make up an effective apology. His study, which will be published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research looked at these six areas to find what role they played in managing the relationship when trust is broken.
While it’s important to note that some are more important than others, here’s the complete list:
1. Expression of regret – This is the actual apology, or the all important, but sometimes tough to say, “I’m Sorry”
2. Explanation of what went wrong – This is the part where you can explain why things went wrong. But again, this part is tricky and probably where most of us fumble in our apologies. What your aiming for is an explanation that the other party can understand and empathize with. If it comes off as a string of excuses, or justification of your action, you can bet the apology will seem a lot less genuine, and can turn into a rant about how it’s not really your fault.
According to the study, explanations can fall into two categories. Either one of integrity or one of competence. An explanation of competence means that something wasn’t properly considered or overlooked, or misjudged. Basically, was it an honest mistake. The other explanation
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility – or admitting that you were at fault, and taking responsibility. Be careful here, trying to deflect responsibility, or using vague terms. Saying that something went wrong or that there was a problem, without identifying who specifically was at fault, won’t cut it.
4. Declaration of repentance – or promising the other party that you won’t commit the action again.
5. Offer of repair – How you plan on fixing the problem or issue. Tell them what you are going to do to fix the mistake.
6. Request for forgiveness – This one you’ll recognize, and simply asks the offended party’s forgiveness.
The Most Important Parts of an Apology
In general, the researchers found that the more of these elements you have in your apology, the more effective it will be. So the best apologies have all six elements.
That doesn’t mean every situation calls for all six parts. Just because you bump into somebody into the elevator, doesn’t mean you have to launch into a big speech. Nor would you want to pull out a checklist to cover your bases every time you make a mistake.
So when it comes time to say “I’m sorry”, which parts should you pay attention to?
Here’s what Roy had to say:
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgment of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”
Easier said than done. In our age of high powered CEO’s, politicians, and actors, most apologies, especially publicly, deflect or deny responsibility, or assign it to some unforeseen circumstance. Very rarely do they take full responsibility. Even in our daily lives it can be hard for us to admit fault for a situation. For an effective apology, though, it takes the number one spot.
The second most important part? The offer of repair. You have to fix what was wrong. Roy says:
“One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
Showing how your going to fix the problem comes in at number two. So when making a real apology make sure you cover the top two factors.
The next three factors are tied for the same level of importance. They include expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance.
As for the least important? Asking forgiveness.
While the research is an in depth look at apologies, it’s downside is that it looked specifically at written apologies. There may be some other factors to consider when giving and receiving them in person. While Roy plans on taking a look at this in future research, we must make an educated guess when applying this information in person.
Make sure you come across as sincere and genuine. Not only from the physical signals you send with facial expressions and posture, but also with your tone of voice.
I’m sure you may get docked as well if the apology seems too rehearsed or even forced. So make sure it doesn’t sound like your reading through, well……a mental checklist of apology criteria. You don’t want to come across as being emotionless.
Apologies and Social Context
We tend to categorize the people and relationships in our lives. Friends are different from our immediate family. Your coworkers are different from the random people you see in a grocery store. The acquaintances you’ve met at the gym are different than the people you sit next to on the subway.
You wouldn’t expect to apologize to every one of these people in the same way. And research has found that people need slightly different things from an apology depending on social context – or how you perceive your relationship with the other person.
Close Relationships: These include your friends, family, and spouse. These relationships are defined by a close emotional bond. When you make a mistake and offend the other person, the apology can be more effective when you address this bond.
It’s especially important to show empathy and demonstrate that you understand how you hurt them through your actions and express concern about their hurt feelings. This can rebuild the trust in the relationship. They are less interested in compensation.
Stranger or Acquaintance: These are the people you’ve just met or hardly know. People on the street, in a store, or only had brief interactions with. There is no emotional bond here, or other social context. These people are most interested in acts of compensation or how you will right the wrong that you did.
Work Colleague or Team: These include your professional circles, clubs, or other groups that you a part of. These people are less interested in compensation or empathy. They need an acknowledgment of the broken rules, accepted group behavior, or social norms of your group/team.
The researchers point out that a comprehensive apology was more effective that a shorter one in every single context. Meaning that even if you don’t address these specific social contexts, an apology will still work. However, the apologies were more effective – and forgiveness more complete – when these social contexts were considered.
So when trying to make the most of an apology, keep in mind how the offended person might see themselves in relation to you.
Apologies and Your Significant Other
Spouses and significant others are a big part of your life. They are closest to you, especially in an emotional sense. This can provide some additional nuance when it comes to conflicts.
With the added complexity in the relationship, it’s important to note that in these circumstances, a conflict can’t always be addressed with an apology.
It might sound odd, but scientists have found that when it comes to fights among couples, they may not want an apology. Instead, it may be about power in the relationship.
The researchers stress that power isn’t about who wears the pants. It’s about shared control and decision making in the relationship. This can be done in the form of getting more independence, accepting responsibility, showing respect, or willingness to compromise.
In short, they may want the relationship to be more of a true partnership, instead of feeling powerless.
Apologies That Can Persuade
Apologies can do more than repair bridges and build trust. They can also be used to give you an edge in persuasion.
Researchers from Harvard and Wharton ran an interesting little experiment using apologies. This wasn’t a typical type of apology for a mistake or done to mend a relationship.
It was an apology for a situation or event that wasn’t under anyone’s control, like the weather or traffic. What the researchers called a superfluous apology.
The experiment had someone approach strangers in a train station while it was raining outside and ask to borrow their cell phone. For half of the people approached, the person would use the apology “I’m so sorry about the rain!” right before asking to borrow the cell phone.
What happened? 47 percent of the people who received the apology let him borrow their cell phone. Without the apology, though, only 9 percent of people were willing to give up the cell phone.
Why the stark contrast? The researchers believed that the apology – even though the person requesting the cell phone wasn’t to blame – built a level trust through the show of empathy.
It’s obviously not the only way to build a certain level of trust or show empathy with a stranger, but making an apology may increase the chances that your request is fulfilled.
The Benefits of Apologizing
Some people may be hesitant to apologize. Mostly because it signals that they are to blame and have to take responsibility. Others because it shows a sign of weakness.
Apologies might have far more positive effects than negative ones, though. Dr. Heidi Halvorson from No One Understands You and What to Do About It:
“Recent research shows that people who are willing to take responsibility for their own failures and for the failures of the teams in which they work are perceived to have greater character, more personal integrity, and more positive intentions toward others—all powerful facilitators of trust.”
Other research has shown that the benefits of an apology and forgiveness can reach even further. It helps well-being, better moods and satisfaction at work, fewer negative emotions such as anger, and greater self-esteem.
It can lay the groundwork for cooperation as well as repair and even improve the quality of a relationship. Which is far better than letting unresolved issues fester and erode foundations of trust or respect.
Here’s something else to consider when it comes to your relationships. In recent years, research has shown that social bonds are also a key predictor for two other important areas. Life satisfaction and mortality.
This means the stronger your social relationships, the happier you’ll be in life, the stronger your physical and mental health, and the longer you’ll be around to enjoy the things that truly matter.
Things may have gotten heated to a point where both parties feel hurt. Things happened. Words were said. When you’re hurt, the last thing you may want to do, or even think about doing, is making an apology.
It’s common in these situations to feel like it’s the other person’s responsibility to apologize first. If they don’t, though, should you go first? Is the apology really worth it?
When it comes to situations like these, the decision is yours alone. It will depend on the context, the depth of hurt, and how much you really care about the other person. It may be easy to forget about the stranger who wants compensation for their spilt coffee. But for someone close to your heart, it’s a different story.
If you do decide to apologize, it helps to know how to apologize effectively and sincerely. Make sure you do it right.