Under the Hood

Want To Apologize To Someone? Here’s The Best Way To Do It, Based On Science

apology
Apologies don't need to be dramatic or comprised of grand gestures, but they often need to be more than "I'm sorry" to be effective. Pixabay, public domain

We’ve all been there: We’ve made a mistake, we need to fess up to it, and we want to regain someone’s trust — whether it’s a partner, a parent, or an employer. But sometimes simply saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. For an apology to really be effective, it needs to hit several notes, according to researchers at The Ohio State University.

In a new study published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, the authors break down what makes a sincere apology. While they pinpoint six elements to a solid apology, there are two major steps: Acknowledge you were wrong, and then offer to fix the problem.

“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility,” said Roy Lewicki, professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and lead author of the study, in a press release. “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”

Before you do that, however, the researchers say you should express regret for what you’ve done, then explain what went wrong. The acknowledgement of responsibility should come third, followed by a declaration of repentance, an offer of repair, and a request for forgiveness.

Of course, taking action to make repairs will solidify your words of acknowledgement and regret, which is why asking to fix things is the second most important step. “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” Lewicki said in the press release. “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”

In the first study, the researchers recruited 333 participants and gave them a scenario to read in which they were the manager of an accounting department hiring a new employee. The potential employee being interviewed turned out to have filed an incorrect tax return understating a client’s capital gains income. The person apologizes, but in different forms — giving one, three, or all six of the apology components — and the participants were told which components the apologies had. They rated the apologies on a scale of one to five based on how effective they were. One other study involved 422 undergraduate students rating the same scenario without being told which components the apology had.

It turned out that in both cases, the more elements the apology had, the more effective it was — whether or not the participants were aware of the components. “Results indicate that not all apologies are viewed equally; apologies with more components were more effective than those with fewer components, and certain components were deemed more important than others,” the authors write in the abstract.

Next time you need to apologize, keep in mind that a complex apology may more genuine than a simple “I’m sorry.”

Source: Lewicki R, Polin B, Lount R. An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research , 2016.

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