How to Say You’re Sorry, According to Science

How to craft better apologies.

May 27, 2019


How to Say You’re Sorry, According to Science | How to craft better apologies.

Have you ever tried to apologize to someone, and just ended up making things worse? We all have.

Mistakes are a regular part of our everyday lives, and when they affect the people around us, we do whatever we can to try and make it better. But a lot of us are doing it wrong, so wouldn’t you like to know the most effective way to say you’re sorry?

A recent study outlined six key steps to crafting an effective apology, and they all start with taking the high road and swallowing your pride. A lot of us think that apologies are just as simple as saying two words: “I’m sorry,” but there’s so much more to it.

What have we all been doing wrong? Why is it so important to admit your mistakes? And how can you make sure your apology seems sincere?

When an apology goes wrong, it can have long-lasting consequences, and leave us scratching our heads about how we could do better in the future. Well luckily for us, in 2014 Roy Lewicki, a professor from Ohio State University performed two experiments to devise the perfect recipe for an effective apology.

He presented 755 volunteers with a trust violation scenario, where a hypothetical employee was trying to earn their forgiveness. Volunteers were offered a range of apologies and asked to rank them based on their strength.

Using the results, researchers were able to identify six critical ingredients for crafting an apology that seems thoughtful and sincere, and they go like this:

  1. There needs to be an expression of regret: For instance, let your friend know that you do feel bad for revealing their secret.
  2. An explanation of what went wrong: explain to them that you thought you were telling the secret to someone who already knew it.
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility: Make it clear that you’re not making excuses, this is still your mistake, no matter what the context.
  4. A declaration of repentance: Assure them that this won’t happen again. No more assuming when it comes to secrets.
  5. An offer of repair: Tell them how you’re going to make sure the secret doesn’t spread any further.
  6. And a request for forgiveness.

The best apologies will include all six of these elements, but if you can’t get them all in there, some are more important than others.

For instance, the two most effective ones are an acknowledgment of wrong-doing, and an offer to fix the problem.
Admitting that you’ve made a mistake quickly starts the healing process, and shuts down any problematic victim-blaming; and offering to fix your errors is important because when it comes to apologies, talk is cheap.

Anyone can spew out the words “I’m sorry,” but when you suggest a solution, you’re showing a commitment to take action to undo the damage. According to these studies, the least effective part of an apology is requesting forgiveness. Don’t make this all about you!

But Lewicki also points out that an excellent sorry isn’t just about what you say, but how you say it. Think about it, when someone apologizes to you in person, over the phone, or through a video chat, it’s far more effective than an e-mail or text.

A face-to-face apology offers things like eye contact, body language, and voice inflection that can be more important than most words.

Don’t believe these strategies will work? Well, just look at the world of public relations where they employ the same kind of theories such as admitting guilt and seeking forgiveness to craft career-saving apologies.

So the next time you royally screw something up, try to incorporate all six elements into your apology, but you know, be natural about it.

And hey, here’s a little tip from me to you, if you struggle with saying sorry too much, try substituting thank you instead. Rather than saying “sorry I’m late,” say “thanks for your patience.”

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