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The Science of Effective Apologies

The science of apologies

Once a problem arises in a relationship, the best way to begin the process of healing the rupture and rebuilding trust is for the offending party to offer an authentic apology. However, for our apology to be effective we have to first listen to the offended party to determine what matters to them.

Serena Williams' foot fault
In 2009, during the women's semi-final at the US Open, a line judge issued a call against Serena Williams for a foot fault. Ms. Williams responded by placing her foot incorrectly yet again—this time in her mouth. She turned to the line judge and said: "I swear to God I'll f***ing take this ball and shove it down your f***ing throat! Do you hear me? I swear to God. You better be glad—you better be f***ing glad that I'm not, I swear!" Despite Ms. Williams' urging, the line judge did not seem glad at all. Rather, she seemed visibly shaken if not terrified.

With adrenaline shooting through their veins and millions of people watching, athletes can and do have outbursts in the heat of the moment. The public is usually willing to forgive such behavior if the athlete later apologizes, as long as the apology sounds sincere (usually because it is written by their publicist). The next day, amid growing criticism, Ms. Williams issued a formal apology (one I suspect was written without her publicist):

"Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don't agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience."

The anatomy of an ineffective apology
Most of us conceive of apologies as including three basic ingredients: (1) a statement of regret for what happened; (2) a clear ‘I'm sorry' statement; and (3) a request for forgiveness. These ingredients must be delivered with sincerity for an apology to be effective. Ms. Williams' apology lacked two of these basic ingredients altogether and her statement of regret ("handled the situation poorly") was an understatement at best. Further, her apology included no recognition of the line judge's feelings nor did it mention the inappropriateness of the personal attack given the woman was merely doing her job. Ms. Williams' statement might have sounded like an apology to her own ears but to most people (and certainly to the line judge) it did not.

The question is, why? Beyond the inclusion of the three basic ingredients, what is the difference between a successful apology and one that fails to elicit forgiveness from the offended party?

Apologies come in all shapes and sizes. Apologies made to a spouse are obviously very different than those made to a work colleague or a friend. Studies have found that in addition to the three basic ingredients, three additional apology components play an important role in determining whether an apology will be effective: (A) Expressions of empathy; (B) Offers of compensation; and (C) Acknowledgments that certain rules or social norms were violated. These components were found to be most effective when they were matched to the characteristics of the person to whom the apology was being offered. It might sound as though the science of apologies is well developed but in fact, the opposite is true.

The Science of Apologies
Psychology has been surprisingly slow to investigate the art of apologizing. Despite years of research into conflict resolution, mediation, and even forgiveness, the role of apologies in these studies was usually observed simply by noting their absence or presence (i.e., whether an apology was offered or not). The specific combination of components the apology included and how effective each component was in eliciting forgiveness and rebuilding trust was typically ignored.

A series of studies examined the three apology components (expressions of empathy, offers of compensation, acknowledgement of the violation of social norms) and their impact on apology effectiveness for different apology recipients. They found that people responded to apology components which best reflected their general view of relationships. Someone who defined themselves by their connections to others responded more strongly to expressions of empathy. Those who tended to keep track of what each person brought to a relationship and what they got out of it found apologies with offers of compensation to be most effective. And those who saw their relationships as being part of a larger group or community responded best to apologies which acknowledged the violation of social norms.

Effective apologies in everyday life
When it comes to daily life, the best way to make our apologies effective is to first listen to the sentiments expressed by the offended party, include all three apology components (in addition to the three basic apology ingredients) but emphasize the appropriate one. Nonetheless, as a general guideline: When apologizing to a spouse, emphasize the empathy component; when apologizing to a work-colleague, emphasize the offer of compensation component; and when apologizing to a friend, emphasize the violation of social norms component. Here are some real life examples:

Spouse/Partner: If we forgot our anniversary, it would be appropriate to follow our statement of regret, ‘I'm sorry," and request for forgiveness by expressing empathy for our partner's disappointment and hurt feelings, offering to make up for our lapse by celebrating or gift-giving at a later date, and acknowledging that anniversaries are important and should be recognized.

Co-Worker: If we forgot to mention our co-worker's contributions during our presentation to the boss, we can follow our regret, "I'm sorry" statement, and forgiveness request by offering to allow them to take the lead on the next presentation, expressing empathy for how frustrated they must have felt and acknowledging that sharing credit fairly is important for the success of everyone individually as well as the team as whole.

Friend: If while arguing with a friend we say something we later wish we hadn't, we should express sincere regret, an "I'm sorry" statement, and forgiveness request, and then we can acknowledge that such things should never be said among friends. We can express empathy and regret for their hurt feelings and promise to make efforts to be supportive and to demonstrate our friendship and loyalty going forward.

But what if our offense was less mundane? What if we threatened to shove tennis balls down the throat of a line judge? Although not an apology researcher herself Ms. Williams did show true championship form by quickly correcting her botched apology with a much better attempt the next day: "I want to sincerely apologize FIRST to the lineswoman...and mostly tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst...I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it's not the way to act—win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner."

Ms. Williams' statement included regret, a clear "I'm sorry" statement, and an acknowledgement of violating social norms. One could also see elements of empathy and offers of compensation in her final statement about the incident. She expressed a wish to speak to the line judge in person so she could "give her a big ol' hug." The line judge declined the offer, preferring to stay at a safe distance from both Ms. Williams and her tennis balls.

By using these ingredients we are much more likely to apologize effectively the first time around, receive forgiveness from the hurt party, mend any ruptures that might have been created in our relationships and begin to rebuild trust.

View my short and quite personal TED talk about Psychological Health here:

Apologies have a major impact on how we manage feelings of guilt. Check out my upcoming book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries

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Copyright 2010 Guy Winch

Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. (2010). When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims' self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113 (1), 37-50.

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