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4 Ways to Make a Better Apology

Research-driven tips for saying sorry and making it count.

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It’s never easy to say you’re sorry when you’ve created distress for another person. The lovers in Erich Segal's novel Love Story may have felt that "love means never having to say you’re sorry," but even the closest couple can find that sometimes it's required.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten to mark an important date, said something you regret, or inadvertently made a bad situation worse by something you’ve done. You might not even want to admit, even to yourself, that you were at fault. However, after thinking it over, you realize that you need to put things right, and an apology is the only way to do so.

In less intense circumstances, it’s not so difficult. We tend to throw the word “sorry” around, often without giving it any thought. You nudge a stranger in line, and say “Oops, sorry,” or misspeak and say, “Sorry, I meant to say…” Even the iPhone's "Siri" program apologizes when it doesn't hear you correctly. The average, everyday use of the term “sorry” doesn’t tend to cause too much emotional hardship.

There’s clearly a difference between the casual and the serious apology. Surprisingly, though, casual apologies can have a positive impact on those with whom you interact. Harvard Business School researcher Alison Wood Brooks and colleagues (2014) studied the effects of what they call “superfluous” apologies on empathy and trust among strangers. In a superfluous apology, you don’t really offer a personal apology for something you did, but for something about a situation that negatively affected someone else. For example, you might say to a friend who's tripped down the stairs “I’m sorry that you fell and hurt yourself,” even though you didn't cause the stumble. 

Brooks and her team found that, in an experimental manipulation, participants exposed to a superfluous apology by a stranger (a confederate of the experimenter) experienced a greater sense of empathy toward that person. They were then more likely to trust that person—in one extreme experimental condition, by offering to let that person borrow their cell phone. The downside to offering superfluous apologies is that if you use them too often with the same person, they don’t work. But Brooks and her team point out that in general, the pros outweigh the cons.

These findings are intriguing, but they only apply to those situations in which clearly you’re not at fault for the unfortunate consequences that affect another person's feelings. To gain insight into deeper apologies, we turn to a study by Queens University (of Ontario) psychologist Alyson Byrne and colleagues (2014). They examined the perceptions of “followers” to apologies by “leaders” in real-life workplace scenarios.

The online sample consisted of more than 500 men and women averaging 33 years old. They were asked to describe an incident in which a supervisor said or did something that negatively affected them. The participants then rated the offending individual on a series of scales measuring their credibility; whether or not the supervisor apologized; how sincere the apology was; the supervisor’s sense of humility in relationships; whether the supervisor was an ethical leader in general (“transformational”); and, importantly, whether the participant forgave the supervisor. The participants also rated their general satisfaction with their supervisors; the quality of their exchanges; and how committed they felt to their organization. Finally, they rated how long ago the incident occurred and their mood at the time of completing the survey.

Applying a predictive statistical model to the scores on these measures, Byrne and her team were able to identify several key factors that led participants to accept their supervisors' apologies, including: trustworthiness; caring and goodwill; humility; and transformational leadership (being able to inspire workers).

Putting together the Byrne and Brooks findings, the following would appear to be 4 key factors to ensure that your apologies have the intended impact:

1. Your apology should be sincere.

As we saw from the Byrne, et al. study, a superfluous apology that expresses empathy makes the other person feel better about you. The Brooks, et al. study showed that supervisors who appeared trustworthy produced apologies that employees felt were sincere. In a relationship, by extension, showing your partner that you mean it by communicating empathy and honesty can help pave the way to forgiveness. The only drawback is that if you’re constantly offering apologies, there may be a point at which your partner decides that “sorry” comes too easily for you, and that you don’t really mean what you’re saying.

2. Your apology should be about the other person—not you.

Returning to the point that superfluous apologies convey empathy, combined with the study of apologies by supervisors, we can conclude that an apology has to reflect your true concern for the other person. The apology should be about the other person’s experiences, not your desire to feel better about yourself for issuing it. Think about why you want to apologize: Is it to alleviate your own feelings of guilt, or is it because you truly regret hurting the other person? Offering an apology that tries to get you off the hook won’t work. Your apology needs to acknowledge the other person’s pain and then communicate your role in the situation.

3. Be humble when you apologize.

An arrogant apology is one in which you somehow manage to communicate blame to the other person. You might say, “I’m sorry you feel that I became too angry at you.” In such an apology, you’re not admitting that you got too angry, just that you’re sorry your partner feels this way. Although relationship experts do advise using “I” statements in such situations, here you’re really making it a “you” statement. A humble apology is one in which you admit wrongdoing—“I’m sorry I lost my temper”—showing that you’re not above reflecting on your own flaws.

4.  Frame your apology in terms of your overall relationship goals.

In a close relationship, both partners wish to preserve and protect each other’s feelings. The Brooks, et al. study on workplace apologies looked at a parallel process in which the best apologies came from supervisors who had a vision of the future and were willing to recognize the accomplishments of their employees. In a relationship, you can’t provide a raise or promotion every time your partner does something noteworthy. But you can show similar regard by recognizing the many positive ways that he or she contributes to the relationship. You also show the counterpart of transformational leadership by showing that you share your partner’s desire to keep the bonds between you strong. Perhaps this is why, in Love Story, the partners felt that in the idealized version true love, you never have to apologize. In the real world, people in relationships rarely have such blind and implicit trust at all moments. There will be times when you need to apologize, but if the basis of your relationship is strong, your partner will be more likely to accept your apology as sincere.

Delivering the perfect apology takes a bit of work, and depends on the exact nature of your relationship with the person or people you offended. Trust, humility, empathy, and respect can go a long way toward turning a negative into a positive, growth-promoting outcome.

 

Please feel free to add your own suggestions to the comments section here, or tweet to me on Twitter @swhitbo or through my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age."

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 

References

Brooks, A., Dai, H., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2014). I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 5(4), 467-474. doi:10.1177/1948550613506122

Byrne, A., Barling, J., & Dupré, K. E. (2014). Leader apologies and employee and leader well-being. Journal Of Business Ethics, 121(1), 91-106. doi:10.1007/s10551-013-1685-3

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