Regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or what your favourite colour is, one thing stays constant: apologising is hard. To say you’re sorry means to stare your mistakes dead in the eye and call them by their name, which is already hard enough – let alone for the apology to be sincere. Even then, in a tense atmosphere, it’s easy to have a hard time getting your point across: you could be completely earnest and make the situation even worse. Yet, apologies are often the first step towards resolving any dispute: if altercations were to be followed with a sincere apology, it would open the door for forgiveness, and allow for a happier relationship.
So…what’s the best way to say “I’m sorry”?
A new study in the business and human resources sector has found six steps to make it more efficient. Published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, Vol. 9, No. 2 in 2016, the study was led by Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of management and human resources at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. His co-authors were Robert Lount, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State and Beth Polin of Eastern Kentucky University.
For their results, Lewicki and his colleagues conducted two separate and differently constructed tests, using different demographics. In these studies, the researchers examined how 755 participants reacted to apologies. Each apology was created to contain anywhere from one to all six of the relevant elements to make an apology as effective as possible.
THE SIX KEY ELEMENTS OF AN EFFECTIVE APOLOGY
Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that the more of the following elements you include, the more effective the apology will be. The six key elements to an effective apology are:
1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of Responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness
FINE TUNING YOUR APOLOGY
While in the best possible scenario, you would use all six elements, some elements are more necessary than others.
Lewicki’s study showed that, first and foremost, for a effective apology one should focus on number 3, “Acknowledgement of Responsibility.”
“Our findings revealed that the most critical component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki explained.
Imagine someone immediately making excuses or, worse, deflecting responsibility; this does not make an effective apology.
The second element to include was “Offer of Repair.” Often, just apologising isn’t enough. By at least proposing to rectify the situation, you are helping your cause. “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to taking action to undo the damage,” he stated.
The next most effective thing to do was a tie of three elements. In fact, just to be safe, it might not be a bad idea to include all three. In no particular order, the elements to include are the expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance.
The least effective element of a real apology? Asking for forgiveness. This is understandable, considering that, in most cases, this will benefit you more than the person you are apologising to, even if the desire to be forgiven comes from a place of remorse and contrition.
TEST #1: adults
The first test involved 333 adults recruited online through Amazon’s MTURK program, a workforce platform. In it, each participant read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department that was in the process of hiring a new employee. The scenario further stated that at a previous job, the employee had filed an incorrect tax return, one that understated the client’s capital gains income. In this scenario, when confronted about the altercation, the job candidate apologised.
Rather than construct an apology using these entities, the researchers just told the participants how many of the elements mentioned above the apology contained. Half of the participants were told that this incorrectly filed tax return was related to the applicant’s competence, meaning that he was not knowledgeable in all relevant tax codes. In other words, an honest mistake. The other half of the participants involved were told that the mishap was related to the individual’s integrity: for whatever reason, he knowingly filed the tax return incorrectly. Then, using a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very), the subjects were asked to rate how effective, credible, and adequate the apology would be.
TEST #2: undergraduate students
The second test was done using 422 undergraduate students. The students read the same scenario, in which as the manager of an accounting department they were considering a job applicant who had made a mistake in their previous job. As with the previous Amazon MTURK study, half of the involved participants were also informed that the incorrectly filed tax return was due to the applicant’s competence, while the other half were told that in this scenario, the document wasn’t correctly filed due to the job applicant’s integrity.
The difference, though, was that this time, the participants weren’t told what elements the apology contained; instead, they were shown. They read an actual apology that included anywhere from 1 to 6 statements based on the six key elements mentioned above. For instance, as regards “Acknowledgement of Responsibility,” the apology statement included “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.” Again, they then rated how effective, credible, and adequate the apology would be.
While the results were not identical, they were at least very similar, Lewicki explained. The results showed that, in both studies, the more of these six elements that the effective apology contained, the more effective it was perceived as, by both the MTURK participants and the undergraduate students. Then, Lewicki and his team evaluated each element one at a time. The team saw that there was a general consistency in how important each element was, in both studies, with some slight variations. Still, in both studies, including a “Request for Forgiveness” was rated as the least important.
DOES MOTIVE MATTER?
As a matter of fact, it seems like it does.
As per the study, it appears that the value of the six components to include in an apology was the same, regardless of whether the apology was related to failures of competence or those of integrity. This means that regardless of whether you meant to forget your spouse’s birthday or to give your friend that terrible haircut, the most important thing is still to acknowledge that you are responsible for the issue. The least important aspect of doing remains to ask them for forgiveness.
Overall, though, the two studies showed that participants were, in fact, less likely to accept an apology, even in their imaginary scenario, when the job applicant was shown as having a lack of integrity versus lack of competence.
It’s also important to remember that, while both of these tests polled a broad sample of different demographics in two different ways, there are still elements that have been left out. Lewicki notes that, in this work, the subjects of the test simply read the apology statements. Professor Lewicki further states that emotion and voice inflexion, during a spoken apology, may have substantial and notable effects as well. “ Things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” he said.
HOW DOES THIS HELP US?
As the adage goes, everybody makes mistakes. While this should, of course, not serve as an excuse for acting in one’s own best interests only or for thoughtless behaviour, the chances are that – if you’re reading this – you’re going to come across many more situations which will warrant you apologising. If you’re still not convinced, there are a plethora of songs about the subject to help. Knowing and acknowledging this opens up a little more room for learning how to handle the situation well. After all, if it’s so common, why shouldn’t apologising – as long as it’s heartfelt, and doesn’t border into manipulation – be treated like a skill?
There are elements that Lewicki and his colleague’s two studies don’t necessarily acknowledge. As previously mentioned, the participants of the studies read written apologies, which, as the researchers noted, is indeed different than a spoken apology. In a face-to-face apology, interpersonal communication elements (like voice inflexion, appropriate expression of sincerity, and eye contact) may also play a significant role, Prof. Lewicki explains.
What’s more, study participants were presented with a relatively impersonal scenario. An apology from a potential employee (and a fictitious one, no less) may be different than an apology from your partner, from a friend, or from a family member.
Said effective apology is also related to a unique situation. Saying you’re sorry for an inappropriately-filed report (especially if the participants had no significant invested interest in accounting and properly-crunched numbers) is not an emotionally charged situation. This is an effective way to conduct a study but may not serve as the best litmus test for many other real-life situations.
SO…WHAT CAN I DO?
The study illustrated that participants were more likely to accept an apology from someone who made an honest mistake and displayed a lack of competence, than from someone who acted out of malice. In other words, without oversimplifying the matter – follow the golden rule.
Make sure to integrate as many of these 5 elements in your effective apology as possible. (a request for forgiveness is a bonus)
- Expression of regret
- Acknowledgement of Responsibility
- Offer of repair
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Declaration of repentance
Still, lack of integrity could be a simple mistake. Nobody’s perfect, after all. So, if you do end up needing to apologise. Remember first to acknowledge responsibility. For example: “It’s my fault.” Second, offer repair, for instance: “I’ll help you by ______” or “I’ll fix it by helping you to ______.”
As the third most important elements to include seem to all be of equal efficacy, the three next ones you should include are the expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance. One example of this could be “I’m so sorry, I regret what I did. It happened because I misunderstood what was said.” As discussed, the least important element and the one that doesn’t have to be included for an effective apology is asking for forgiveness.
Lastly, if you’re on the receiving end of the apology try to be gracious and understanding. And, if you ever recognise these six elements, used in the appropriate order, remember that the person who’s apologising to you is at least well-informed.
CAN APOLOGISING MAKE YOU HAPPIER?
The correlation may not be the most direct, but it’s there. Relationships, be they with friends, family, partners or coworkers, are always messy, and to work towards never even needing to apologise is unrealistic: a much more achievable goal is, while of course trying to avoid hurtful situations, to learn to mend them effectively when they arise. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a life filled with healthy and happy relationships is not only the key to happiness: it’s also the key to physical and emotional well-being.
Research has proven time and time again that not only are connections with others one of the most basic prerequisites for life satisfaction, but that those relationships must be balanced and uplifting: not a power struggle, but a series of connections. And often, what may be perceived as a weakness (as per the famous John Wayne quote) is actually one of the hardest virtues to uphold. Apologising is hard, and those who face their faults are more courageous than many. After all, as Leon Uris once wrote:
“The ability of a person to atone has always been the most remarkable of human features.”
Model Photo: colourbox.com