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We've all heard apologies that made us question the sincerity of the person who is supposed to be saying "I'm sorry." What makes an apology resonate as truly heartfelt? Six important ingredients, a study suggests.
If you want to have the best chance for your apology to ring true and to actually start to make amends, you should incorporate all six elements into your apology, said the study’s lead author, Roy Lewicki, Abramowitz, professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Lewicki and his colleagues tested the effectiveness of the following components, alone, in groups of three and all together, in experiments involving more than 750 study volunteers:
1. Expression of regret — where you say how terrible you feel about what you did.
2. Explanation of what went wrong — where you say why and how it happened.
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility — where you take full responsibility for what happened without suggesting that the victim had anything to do with it.
4. Declaration of repentance — where you say you know what you did was wrong and won’t do it again.
5. Offer of repair — where you offer to try to make it up to the victim.
6. Request for forgiveness — where you ask the victim to pardon your actions.
The volunteers were presented with a hypothetical scenario involving a tax accountant who messes up on a tax return because he either makes an “honest” mistake or purposely does it for some reason, perhaps because his boss told him to do it, Lewicki said. Not surprisingly, volunteers said they’d have a harder time accepting an apology, no matter how perfectly crafted, if it were for a lapse in integrity than for a problem with competence, according to the report published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.
The most important component of a successful apology was the acknowledgment of responsibility, followed by the offer to try to repair the damage, Lewicki said. If you can’t include all six elements, apologies that included those two plus one of the following seemed to resonate most with study volunteers: an explanation of what went wrong, an expression of regret or a declaration of repentance.
The least important component of the apology was the request for forgiveness, Lewicki found.
That doesn’t surprise Marjorie Ingall in the least. Ingall, co-author of the SorryWatch blog, which critiques apologies, thinks the request doesn’t even belong in a proper apology.
“The problem with asking for forgiveness is it puts the person who has been wronged on the spot,” said Ingall. “It is a gift, not something you are allowed to ask for. It’s something they can grant.”
Another apology no-no: the word "obviously."
“You shouldn’t be saying, for example, ‘Obviously, I feel terrible and never meant for this to happen,’” Ingall said.
Ingall suspects that the component on the top of Lewicki’s list is the one that is hardest for people to offer up: acknowledgment. “I think it’s partly because nobody wants to say the thing they did was wrong,” she said. “But the person who’s been wronged wants to know you understand what you did.”
It would seem that people would want to craft the best apology possible so they could move on from their misdeeds and mistakes. But, says Ingall, it’s really hard for a lot of people to say they are sorry. “Having to apologize is often at odds with our own self-conception,” she explained. “We don’t want to see ourselves as flawed, guilty people who screw up.”
In the end, even the perfect apology won’t completely paper over our larger crimes.
“The apology is just a short term stop gap,” Lewicki says. “For a minor violation, it might be enough. But for a major one, there is going to have to be some kind of subsequent follow-up that puts credibility to those [promises] of behavior change.”