6 Science-Based Ways to Say “I’m Sorry” Effectively

Number 3, 'Acknowledgment of responsibility' is most important.

Posted Apr 13, 2016

s_karau/Shutterstock
Source: s_karau/Shutterstock

Last week, I was driving in the car with my 8-year-old daughter when Ryan Adams' cover of Taylor Swift’s hit song, “Bad Blood,” came on the radio. As she was singing along, from the booster seat in the back, I was watching her in the rear-view mirror... 

There was something about the look in my daughter's eyes as she sang the lyrics to “Bad Blood” (about a relationship gone sour and holding a grudge) which prompted me to ask, “Do you have bad blood with any of your friends?” To my surprise, she said, ”Yes.” When I tried to dig a bit deeper, she got shy about revealing the details ... She did say, “It was both of our fault. But now we’re both too stubborn to apologize.”  

My daughter is always curious about what I’m writing for Psychology Today and how it relates to everyday life—so, I saw this as an opportune moment to tell her about a blog post I wrote recently, “Holding a Grudge Produces Cortisol and Diminishes Oxytocin.”

In a quick synopsis, I explained that cortisol is the "stress hormone" triggered by “fight-or-flight” responses and oxytocin is the "love hormone" that makes us want to “tend-and-befriend.” Then, I explained that researchers had found that 'taking the high road' and swallowing your pride was the first step to ending a conflict. And that making a genuine 'conciliatory gesture' or peace offering was the key to ending 'bad blood.'

My daughter asked a few more questions, and I elaborated on more details of the 2014 study, “Conciliatory Gestures Promote Forgiveness and Reduce Anger in Humans,” which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a statement, Michael McCullough, principal investigator of the study, described his research by saying,

"All of the things that people are motivated to do when they have harmed someone they care about really do appear to be effective at helping victims forgive and get over their anger.

People often think that evolution designed people to be mean, violent, and selfish, but humans need relationship partners, so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict."

One especially fascinating aspect of this research is that humans are wired for conflict resolution much like non-human animals, who live in groups, tend to restore valuable relationships. McCullough concluded, "Many group-living vertebrates, but particularly mammals, seem to use 'conciliatory gestures' as signals of their desire to end conflict and restore cooperative relationships with other individuals after aggressive conflict has occurred. We seem to have a similar psychology as well."

The 6 Science-Based Elements of an Effective Apology

This morning, I was excited to wake up and read about new research from The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business that pinpoints 6 elements of an effective apology. My daughter is old enough to read my blog posts now... So, I’m actually going to have her read this on her iPad as we drive to school this morning, as a follow-up to our "Bad Blood" conversation of last week.

Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at Ohio State, and lead author of the study, was curious to pinpoint the key ingredients of an effective apology. In two separate experiments, Lewicki and his co-authors tested 755 people to see how they reacted to a spectrum of apologies containing anywhere from one to all six of these elements. Here's what they found: 

          6 Elements of an Effective Apology by Lewicki et al.  

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

The full report, “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” will be published in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. Lewicki's co-authors for this study were Robert Lount, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State, and Beth Polin of Eastern Kentucky University.

The researchers concluded that while the best apologies contained all six elements, not all of these components are equal. In a statement, Lewicki said, "Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake. The second most important element was an offer of repair.”

"One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage," he said. The next three elements were essentially tied for third in effectiveness: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance.

Conclusion: Requesting Forgiveness Is the Least Effective Way to Apologize

According to the latest research on effectively saying you’re sorry, Bryan Adams doesn't have it right when it comes to the science of apologizing, based solely on the title of his song, “Please, Forgive Me.” Although, that song is actually about unconditional love... 

That said, in both studies on effective apologies, the request for forgiveness was seen as the least important part of saying "I'm sorry." In fact, Lewicki found that the least effective element of an apology is asking forgiveness. "That's the one you can leave out if you have to," Lewicki concluded.

Lewicki emphasizes that, in this study, participants read apology statements in a dry and emotionless manner. In real life, the authenticity and emotion implied by the inflection of your voice in a spoken apology can have powerful impacts on the effectiveness of an apology.

Whenever possible, apologizing in person, via Skype, or on the telephone is always better than sending a text or email. Lewicki reiterated, "Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology.”

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