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What to Say When You Have to Say "I'm Sorry"

The 3 kinds of apology, and who they most appeal.

Apologies can be enormously effective when it comes to resolving conflict, repairing hurt feelings, fostering forgiveness, and improving relationships in both our personal and professional lives. They increase relationship commitment and satisfaction, employee loyalty and satisfaction, feelings of trust, and cooperation. An apology can even keep you out of the courtroom. (Despite the fact that lawyers tend to caution their clients to avoid apologies like the plague, fearing that they are tantamount to an admission of guilt, studies show that when potential plaintiffs receive an apology, they are more likely to settle out of court for less money.)

But as anyone can tell you, apologies don't always work. (Ask Michael Richards, for instance. Or John Edwards. Or Trent Lott. I could go on and on.) At times they seem to fall on deaf ears. This can be because the person or persons we are seeking forgiveness from really aren't interested in forgiving, or because the transgression itself is deemed simply unforgivable. But more often than not, our apologies fall flat because we apologize the wrong way.

So what is the right way? How should you apologize to your coworker, customer, friend, or spouse, in order to be sure that your already bad situation doesn't end up even worse? Until recently, there has been very little (scientific) psychological research focusing on what constitutes a "good" apology. A new set of studies, however, reveals that different kinds of apologies appeal to different kinds of people, and that the key to an effective apology lies in thinking carefully about your audience.

The researchers identified three distinct forms of apology: offers of compensation, expressions of empathy, and acknowledgment of violated rules and norms.

Offers of compensation are an attempt to restore balance through some redeeming action. Sometimes the compensation is tangible, like paying to repair or replace your neighbor's fence when you inadvertently back your car into it, or running out to get your girlfriend a new phone when you accidentally drop hers into the toilet (which happened to me, by the way. Not cool.) Offers of compensation can also be more emotional or socially-supportive (as in, "I'm sorry I was a jerk, and I'll make it up to you by being extra nice from now on.")

Expressions of empathy, on the other hand, involve recognizing and expressing concern over the suffering you caused (e.g., "I'm so sorry that I didn't appreciate all the effort you went to. You must have felt awful, and that's the last thing I want.") Through expressions of empathy, the victim feels understood and valued as a partner in the relationship, and trust is restored.

When your apology is an acknowledgement of violated rules and norms, you are basically admitting that you broke the code of behavior of your social group, your organization, or your society. (e.g., "No one in my family/profession/community behaves this way, I should have known better." "I didn't just let myself down, I let my teammates/company/fans down.")

Research shows that these three different types of apology are most effective when offered to people who think of themselves in particular ways.

People who have an independent self-concept think of themselves primarily as individual, autonomous agents, completely separate from others. They tend to be focused mainly on their own rights, feelings, and goals, and as a result, experience transgressions as a personal injury or betrayal. No surprise then that they respond most favorably to apologies that offer compensation. The United States is a particularly independent, individualistic society, which may explain why American juries seem to love doling out lots of money as compensation for pain and suffering. (And this is why telling a deserving employee who you passed over for promotion that you "feel his pain" is probably not helpful - he doesn't care what you feel, he wants what's coming to him.)

People with a more relational self-concept see themselves as primarily defined by their relationships with significant others (e.g., spouse, parent, child, friend, colleague). This type of self-concept is more common among women, for whom relationship ups and downs tend to loom large. When your self-concept is relational, you are focused on creating, maintaining and strengthening the relationships in your life. Transgressions are experienced as betrayals of mutual respect and trust, and consequently, apologies are most effective when they include expressions of empathy, rather than offers of compensation. (And this is why your gift of flowers after you've forgotten your wife's birthday or stayed out too late drinking with the guys is usually met with an icy stare. We don't want your flowers - we want you to feel our pain.)

Finally, people with a collective self-concept see themselves first and foremost as members of the important groups, organizations, and cultures to which they belong. When you are a part of a group, whether it's your family, your company, or your society, there are rules that govern how you are supposed to behave. For instance, baseball players aren't allowed to take steroids. Accountants aren't allowed to fool around with the books. Politicians can't break the laws that they are elected to create and protect. Members of my family aren't allowed to violate the rules of grammar. (You want to see an icy stare, try saying "You did really good" in front of my mother. It's positively arctic.) Transgressions are experienced as betrayals of the rules or values of the group, and thus, apologies that offer acknowledgment of violated rules and norms are your best bet for restoring your good standing with the other group members.

When crafting your apology, remember to ask yourself: Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology? What troubles them the most about what I did? Was my transgression perceived as a personal injury, betrayal of the relationship, or betrayal of the code of behavior of our group?

If you're not sure, think about how the injured party most often talks about themselves - do they focus on their own individual qualities, their key relationships, or the important groups to which they belong? Knowing something about how the person you wronged thinks of him or herself is your first clue to what is probably bothering them most, and will help you to apologize in the most effective way.