Advice on saying sorry properly when an apology is due, by Lisa Fields.
Years ago, I had a falling out with a friend due to a misunderstanding that was completely my fault. I was afraid to admit that I was wrong, so we didn’t speak for years. Then we bumped into each other and decided to meet for lunch. It was so pleasant that we kept meeting. After two or three meals together, I felt compelled to apologise for my transgression years earlier.
My experience isn’t unique: Many people avoid apologizing because the idea of admitting to wrongdoing makes them terribly uncomfortable. “We all like to view ourselves as good people—as kind, considerate and moral,” says Ryan Fehr, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.
Photo by Verne Ho
“Apologies force us to admit to ourselves that we don’t always live up to our own standards. We might also fear that the victim won’t accept our apology, further compromising our positive sense of self. For these reasons, an apology can be very difficult to give.”
For many, apologising is stressful, awkward and uncomfortable. But a heartfelt apology has positive effects. Research shows that it can improve your mental health, repair damaged relationships and boost self-esteem.
“Apology acts as a signal of one’s moral character,” Fehr says. “It represents a separation of the offender from the offense. The offender is saying: ‘I recognise that what I did was hurtful, but that offense does not represent me as a person.’”
Would you like to apologise but aren’t sure how? Experts offer this advice:
Build your apology
Researchers at Ohio State University have determined that effective apologies have six components: Expressing regret, explaining what went wrong, acknowledging responsibility, declaring repentance, offering to repair the situation and requesting forgiveness. All six aren’t necessary every time.
“What we found was: The more of those components that were included, the more likely the apology was seen as credible,” says Roy Lewicki, the lead study author. “Acknowledgement of responsibility turned out to be the most important piece, followed by an explanation of why it happened and declaration of repentance.”
Other research has shown that expressing regret and acknowledging responsibility are vital. “Without regret, it’s a justification of your actions,” Fehr says. “Without responsibility, it’s an excuse."
When you want to apologise, should you say something right away? Should you wait, especially if someone needs time to cool off?
“Sometimes, an immediate apology is called for,” says Antony Manstead, a psychology professor at Cardiff University in Wales. “But if the other party is angry at your perceived wrongdoing, it may be more effective to wait, because their anger may stop them being receptive to an apology.”
Waiting can have other benefits, too.
“Some research suggests that a delay increases an apology’s effectiveness because it conveys that the transgressor has had time to reflect on his/her misdeeds,” says Mara Olekalns, professor of management at Melbourne Business School. “Other research suggests that the closer to the transgression, the more effective, possibly because it conveys an immediate recognition of, and remorse for, wrongdoing.”
Waiting too long can backfire, but it may be effective. I took ten years to apologize to my friend, but she was receptive and touched by my words. If your 60-year-old brother apologises for bullying you as a child, you’ll likely appreciate the sentiment. And some governments successfully apologise for centuries-old crimes.
“The best time to apologise is when one feels ready to sincerely apologise,” says Etienne Mullet, research director of the Ethics and Work Laboratory at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris. “There is nothing worse in these situations than insincere apologies.”
Choose your words
Avoid these pitfalls:
Making excuses. “Because admitting wrong is painful and can make you worried that you’re a bad person, people often water down their apology with excuses—statements that undermine the responsibility part of the apology in order to save face,” says Roger Giner-Sorolla, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in England.
Belittling someone’s feelings. “Don’t imply that the other person is wrong to feel upset or angry,” Olekalns says. “This diminishes and invalidates their experience.”
Pointing fingers. “Examples include ‘I certainly apologise if I offended anyone,’ and ‘I’m very sorry, but in my defense, you started it,’” Fehr says. “This is deflecting responsibility onto the victim for being too sensitive or starting the conflict cycle. An apology should unequivocally take responsibility for the offense.”
Offering a non-apology. “A non-apology is a statement like: ‘I’m sorry you were offended by my joke,’ Giner-Sorolla says. “It uses the form of an apology—‘I’m sorry’—but follows it up by shifting responsibility to the offended person, implying they’re too sensitive.”
Pick a medium
Experts agree that face-to-face apologies trump phone, email or handwritten apologies.
“Facial expressions, the posture of the body and the tone of voice have all been shown to be important channels that convey how sincere you are when you express remorse,” Giner-Sorolla says. “Anyone can type, ‘I feel really ashamed,’ but if you say it live, it’s obvious whether or not you really mean it.”
A phone call is second-best: You’ll convey emotions with your voice and get immediate feedback. Emailed or texted apologies aren’t ideal because they’re devoid of emotional cues and because once you’ve typed them, the recipients can forward them to anyone.
“A victim can, of course, exploit written apologies and do harm to the apologiser,” Mullet says. “Being a victim does not automatically transform a person into a good person. The person who apologises must, therefore, be prudent.”
What comes next?
Post-apology, you may feel like a burden has been lifted. Research shows that apologies may ease an apologiser’s troubled conscience, kickstart the forgiveness process among victims, bring people closer and boost trust, even among strangers.
“An apology is an important tool for rebuilding a relationship to make it functional again,” Lewicki says.
Even if you stumble over your words, they’ll mean a lot. “Victims usually do appreciate an apology,” Fehr says. “An apology is much more likely to have a positive effect on the relationship than a negative effect.”
I know this first-hand: My friend and I had lunch recently, 15 years after my belated apology. Confessing that everything had been my fault helped us overcome our rift and heal our bond. We’re both appreciative to have our friendship today.
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