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The Value of Saying I'm Sorry

Sorry helps, even when you're not to blame.

Person holding a note that says sorry

Can you remember an instance as a child when a parent or teacher instructed you to say you were sorry in a situation you deemed was clearly not your fault? Did you protest and defend your innocence… “but, mu-uum!” Turns out you were getting good advice.

Recent research by Wood-Brooks, Dai, and Schweitzer suggests that apologizing for things that are in no way your fault (a so-called superfluous apology) increases people’s trust in you and makes them behave more trustingly in return.

For example, if a teammate walks over to you in the cafeteria, flops himself down and regales you with a story about a really rough meeting that morning, it can be very valuable to take a moment to say “I’m sorry you had such a tough meeting.” The research shows that this superfluous apology triggers something different and more beneficial than if you simply acknowledge the adverse event with a comment like “Wow. You had a tough meeting.”

It turns out that your apology makes the person feel that you’re empathizing with them and that you’re concerned for their well-being. That invokes positive feelings and they reciprocate by extending trust to you. Imagine, all that goodwill caused by apologizing for something as simple as the traffic on the way to the office!

Secrets of a good superfluous sorry:

  1. Pay attention to the realities of your teammates. Only by tuning in can you know what is adversely impacting them and have the chance to apologize.
  2. Be genuinely empathetic about your teammate’s situation. Whether they are wet from the rain, angry from a confrontation, or rushed by a deadline, take a moment to think what the world looks like from their shoes.
  3. Convey your empathy with a genuine tone and pause after delivering your apology so it doesn’t feel like you’re brushing the issue off.
  4. In an ambiguous situation, take more responsibility than necessary. If there are different interpretations of blame, you’re best to take ownership of more rather than less. “I’m sorry the traffic was bad. I probably shouldn’t have scheduled a meeting for this time.”
  5. Avoid the superfluous sorry only in adversarial or negotiation situations. There is some evidence that selfish negotiators will take advantage of your perceived weakness if you apologize for something that wasn’t your fault.

We all understand the importance of saying sorry for things when we legitimately own the blame. But saying sorry for something as uncontrollable as the weather seems ridiculous! Ridiculous or not, demonstrating that you care about someone by empathizing with their plight is good for your relationship.

Practice saying it with me. “I’m sorry…”

More from Liane Davey Ph.D.
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