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The Most Important Part of an Apology (and the Least)

If you think it's about getting forgiveness, you've got it all wrong.

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

Whether you lost your temper in a heated argument, or made a joke that offended someone, your next move is critical: Do you try to minimize the potential damage of your actions? Do you deny that you did anything wrong? Or do you apologize to those you hurt?

If you want to repair a relationship, you should already know that an apology is essential. But not all apologies are created equal. New research sheds light on what you should include if you truly want to make amends.

The Science Behind An Effective Apology

A study that will appear in the May issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research discovered six components of a good apology. While not all apologies had to include all six in order to be effective, researchers found the more components there were, the more likely the apology would be successful:

  1. Expression of regret.
  2. Explanation of what went wrong.
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility.
  4. Declaration of repentance.
  5. Offer of repair.
  6. Request for forgiveness.

If for some reason, you can't craft an apology with all six components, the researchers say, the most important element is to accept responsibility. Acknowledge that you made a mistake and make it clear that you’re at fault. And never apologize for someone else’s feelings—take full responsibility for your behavior. So rather than say, “I’m sorry if you were hurt by my words,” say, “I’m sorry I said hurtful things.”

The second-most-important element, the research found, is to offer a repair. While you might not necessarily be able to undo the damage, there are usually steps you can take to reduce the harm.

The next three components were essentially tied for third in the study, in terms of effectiveness—expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance. And the least effective part of an apology? Asking the person you've wronged to grant you forgiveness.

Communicate Effectively And Sincerely

Obviously, the content of an apology is only half the battle. The delivery matters just as much. If you mumble, avert eye contact, or stand in the corner with your arms crossed, it won’t matter what you say. If you’re still angry, your tone of voice will tell a different story than the words coming out of your mouth.

One study found that as long as CEOs looked sad when they apologized, their listeners wanted to make amends. But, if the CEO looked happy or neutral, the apology actually exacerbated the negative feelings of those they'd offended. In fact, companies' stock prices tend to rise after a leader who looks sad delivers an apology. No matter how severe the damage, a sincere apology restores faith.

If you really want to repair your relationship, deliver an apology face-to-face. Delivering an apology over email—or via text message—will likely fall short. A recipient wants to see and hear that your regret is authentic.

The Courage To Apologize

Saying you’re sorry is uncomfortable: It can be hard to admit shortcomings and acknowledge your mistakes. But taking responsibility is the key to restoring a relationship. So whether you've offended your mother-in-law or hurt your partner's feelings, own it. Include the six elements of an effective apology, and make sure you look remorseful when you deliver it.

Want to get rid of the bad habits that rob you of mental strength? Pick up a copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

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