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Are You Big Enough to Apologize?

New research explains why we hate apologizing.

Fans of NCIS are familiar with Gibbs’ Rule Number 6: Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness. Then again, maybe that is why he has been divorced three times and is currently unmarried.

Ali McGraw gravely intoned a similar rule in the 1970’s movie Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This could only be spoken by someone who has never been married—for long.

The purpose of apologies

Do apologies serve a useful purpose? Or are they just power plays between people?

The majority of research indicates that apologies do indeed serve a useful—and objectively measurable—purpose. They convert a desire for revenge into willingness to forgive and forget.

Researchers have found that people who are wronged in a business transaction may be more likely to say they would reconcile if the offender offers a sincere apology – particularly if the offender takes personal blame for the misdeed.

Genuine apologies also yield positive outcomes in lawsuits, according to Dr. Jennifer Robbennolt, a Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois. “Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court,” she said. “But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases.”

Robbennolt based this conclusion on research involving more than 550 people during settlement negotiations in a hypothetical injury case. Overall, apologies reduced financial demands and facilitated agreement. But the nature of the apology matters. Apologies that accepted fault had more impact than apologies that merely expressed sympathy, but took no responsibility. The latter are sometimes referred to as “non-apologies”, such as “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Non-apologies infuriate people, fanning the flames of perceived injury and a desire for revenge.

Why refuse to apologize?

So if genuine apologies yield such positive outcomes, why do so many people so strongly resist making them?

According to recent research, the reason has more to do with ego strength than with the merits of the case or the severity of the transgression. According to lead author Tyler Okimoto, "When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered," he said. "That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth." Ironically, Okimoto said, people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.

Okimoto and his colleagues came to this conclusion after studies the responses of 228 Americans who were asked to remember a time they had done something wrong—everything from trivial offenses to serious crimes, such as theft—and to indicate whether or not they had apologized. They also were asked to compose an email in which they either apologized or refused to apologize for their actions. The results showed that refusing to apologize provided psychological benefits.

Should you apologize?

So why do people refuse to apologize? Because apologizing makes them feel bad about themselves. Some even believe that apologizing means groveling and allowing another person to crow in victory over you—like the victor demanding you cry “uncle’ before he’ll let you go. According to Okimoto, demanding an apology from people with this belief system makes them feel threatened.

But on the way to adulthood, we learn that apologizing isn’t groveling or debasing oneself. Instead, the reason we apologize is to make the person we intentionally or unintentionally harmed feel better, not to make ourselves feel better. An apology means "I see you were harmed by my action, and that matters to me".

Apologizing threatens to topple that fragile sense of omnipotence. It means having to face that we are human after all, and that part of being reasonable human adult means owning up to our mistakes and setting them right. According to NPR, “The next time junior — or your partner — does something wrong, pass on the stare and try a hug.” In other words, we have become such fragile babies that we can’t handle the ego threat involved in making a simple apology. Instead, we need to be coddled cuddled, and excused from stepping up to the plate and sorting the mess we’ve intentionally or unintentionally created.

If you have trouble apologizing, remind yourself of these two things:

1. Apologizing doesn’t mean admitting inferiority, unworthiness, or weakness. It doesn’t mean groveling or debasing yourself. People who demand that of you aren’t asking for an apology. They are asking for submission, and that is quite a different thing.

2. An apology first and foremost communicates a simple message that affirms your humanity and that of the injured party: “I see and I care”.