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What's Your Excuse?

Shielding yourself from blame can both help and hurt you.

Making excuses may be poor form—whether we're summoning a half-baked reason for going 45 in a 30-mph zone or blaming the subway for our lateness, again—but we use them anyway, at least occasionally, to deflect some of the blame for our missteps. Is it really worthwhile to rationalize our actions? When is it better to take full responsibility?

In some situations, research suggests, excuses work perfectly well. An analysis by Gettysburg College psychologist Christopher P. Barlett indicates that if you've done something to annoy someone, a thoughtful excuse—like "I'm sorry, I've been feeling really irritable today"—can stave off retaliatory feelings. Another study finds that in dealing with complaints, businesses can make a problem feel less serious to customers by deploying an excuse.

Frequent excuse making, however, comes with risks. A new study suggests that self-handicapping—behavior that precedes a performance and is intended to explain away any potential poor results ("I didn't get around to studying math until last night")—is associated with lower motivation and achievement in students. And if professionals too often attempt to talk their way out of taking responsibility, colleagues may lose faith in them. A study by researchers at Iowa State University shows that when an employee tries to hedge against judgment for a performance by pointing to handicapping factors (like slim resources or tight deadlines), the justifications lose credibility after just the second time.

The most effective excuses accomplish one of two things: They either gracefully express one's responsibility and offer reassurance that the mishap won't happen again, or they explain that the situation was out of one's hands. They also show empathy for the resulting trouble and mirror the mood of the listener.

It's also best to be honest. Using an excuse that seems insincere or manipulative may create more backlash than saying nothing at all.

An Excuse in Four Steps: The ERROR Method

Empathy: "I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me."

Responsibility: "I should have thought things out better,..."

Reason: "... but I got caught up in [reason for behavior]."

Offer Reassurance: "Next time I'll [preventative action]."