How to Say “I’m Sorry”

What to do when an apol­ogy is due.

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY LISA FIELDS

YEARS AGO, I HAD A FALL­ING OUT with a friend due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing that was com­pletely my fault. I was afraid to ad­mit that I was wrong, so we didn’t speak for years. Then we bumped into each other and de­cided to meet for lunch. It was so pleas­ant that we kept meet­ing. Af­ter two or three meals to­gether, I felt com­pelled to apol­o­gize for my trans­gres­sion years ear­lier.

My ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t unique: Many peo­ple avoid apol­o­giz­ing be­cause the idea of ad­mit­ting to wrong­do­ing makes them ter­ri­bly un­com­fort­able. “We all like to view our­selves as good peo­ple—as kind, con­sid­er­ate and moral,” says Ryan Fehr, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton’s Foster School of Busi­ness.

“Apolo­gies force us to ad­mit to our­selves that we don’t al­ways live up to our own stan­dards. We might also fear that the vic­tim won’t ac­cept our apol­ogy, fur­ther com­pro­mis­ing our pos­i­tive sense of self. For these rea­sons, an apol­ogy can be very dif­fi­cult to give.”

For many, apol­o­giz­ing is stress­ful, awk­ward and un­com­fort­able. But a heart­felt apol­ogy has pos­i­tive ef­fects. Re­search shows that it can im­prove your men­tal health, re­pair dam­aged re­la­tion­ships and boost self-es­teem.

“Apol­ogy acts as a sig­nal of one’s moral char­ac­ter,” Fehr says. “It rep­re­sents a sep­a­ra­tion of the of­fender from the of­fense. The of­fender is say­ing: ‘I rec­og­nize that what I did was hurt­ful, but that of­fense does not rep­re­sent me as a per­son.’”

Would you like to apol­o­gize but aren’t sure how? Ex­perts of­fer this ad­vice:

Build your apol­ogy

Re­searchers at Ohio State Univer­sity have de­ter­mined that ef­fec­tive apolo­gies have six com­po­nents: Ex­press­ing re­gret, ex­plain­ing what went wrong, ac­knowl­edg­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, declar­ing re­pen­tance, of­fer­ing to re­pair the sit­u­a­tion and re­quest­ing for­give­ness. All six aren’t nec­es­sary ev­ery time.

“What we found was: The more of those com­po­nents that were in­cluded, the more likely the apol­ogy was seen as cred­i­ble,” says Roy Lewicki, lead study au­thor. “Ac­knowl­edge­ment of re­spon­si­bil­ity turned out to be the most im­por­tant piece, fol­lowed by ex­pla­na­tion of why it hap­pened and dec­la­ra­tion of re­pen­tance.”

Other re­search has shown that ex­press­ing re­gret and ac­knowl­edg­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity are vi­tal.

“With­out re­gret, it’s a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of your ac­tions,” Fehr says. “With­out re­spon­si­bil­ity, it’s an ex­cuse.”

Con­sider tim­ing

When you want to apol­o­gize, should you say some­thing right away? Should you wait, es­pe­cially if some­one needs time to cool off?

“Some­times, an im­me­di­ate apol­ogy is called for,” says Antony Manstead, psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Cardiff Univer­sity in Wales. “But if the other party is an-

gry at your per­ceived wrong­do­ing, it may be more ef­fec­tive to wait, be­cause their anger may stop them be­ing re­cep­tive to an apol­ogy.”

Wait­ing can have other ben­e­fits, too.

“Some re­search sug­gests that a de­lay in­creases an apol­ogy’s ef­fec­tive­ness, be­cause it con­veys that the trans­gres­sor has had time to re­flect

“A non-apol­ogy is a state­ment like ‘I’m sorry you were of­fended by my joke.’”

on his/her mis­deeds,” says Mara Olekalns, pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at Mel­bourne Busi­ness School. “Other re­search sug­gests that the closer to the trans­gres­sion, the more ef­fec­tive, pos­si­bly be­cause it con­veys an im­me­di­ate recog­ni­tion of, and re­morse for, wrong­do­ing.”

Wait­ing too long can back­fire, but it may be ef­fec­tive. I took ten years to apol­o­gize to my friend, but she was re­cep­tive and touched by my words. If your 60-year-old brother apol­o­gizes for bul­ly­ing you as a child, you’ll likely ap­pre­ci­ate the sen­ti­ment. And some gov­ern­ments suc­cess­fully apol­o­gize for cen­turies-old crimes.

“The best time to apol­o­gize is when one feels ready to sin­cerely apol­o­gize,” says Eti­enne Mul­let, re­search di­rec­tor of the Ethics and Work Lab­o­ra­tory at the In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Stud­ies in Paris. “There is noth­ing worse in these sit­u­a­tions than in­sin­cere apolo­gies.”

Choose your words

Avoid these pit­falls:

Mak­ing ex­cuses. “Be­cause ad­mit­ting wrong is painful and can make you wor­ried that you’re a bad per­son, peo­ple of­ten wa­ter down their apol­ogy with ex­cuses—state­ments that un­der­mine the re­spon­si­bil­ity part of the apol­ogy in order to save face,” says Roger Giner-Sorolla, pro­fes­sor of so­cial psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Kent in Eng­land.

Belit­tling some­one’s feel­ings. “Don’t im­ply that the other per­son is wrong to feel up­set or an­gry,” Olekalns says. “This di­min­ishes and in­val­i­dates their ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Point­ing fin­gers. “Ex­am­ples in­clude ‘I cer­tainly apol­o­gize if I of­fended any­one,’ and ‘I’m very sorry, but in my de­fense, you started it,’” Fehr says. “This is de­flect­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity onto the vic­tim for be­ing too sen­si­tive or start­ing the con­flict cy­cle. An apol­ogy should un­equiv­o­cally take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the of­fense.”

Of­fer­ing a non-apol­ogy. “A non­apol­ogy is a state­ment like: ‘I’m sorry you were of­fended by my joke,’ Giner-Sorolla says. “It uses the form of an apol­ogy—‘I’m sorry’—but fol­lows it up by shift­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity to the

of­fended per­son, im­ply­ing they’re too sen­si­tive.”

Pick a medium

Ex­perts agree that face-to-face apolo­gies trump phoned-in, e-mailed or hand­writ­ten apolo­gies.

“Fa­cial ex­pres­sions, the pos­ture of the body and the tone of voice have all been shown to be im­por­tant chan­nels that con­vey how sin­cere you are when you ex­press re­morse,” Giner Sorolla says. “Any­one can type, ‘I feel re­ally ashamed,’ but if you say it live, it’s ob­vi­ous whether or not you re­ally mean it.”

A phone call is sec­ond-best: You’ll con­vey emo­tions with your voice and get im­me­di­ate feed­back. E-mailed apolo­gies aren’t ideal be­cause they’re de­void of emo­tional cues ... and be­cause once you’ve typed them, the re­cip­i­ents can for­ward them to any­one.

“A vic­tim can, of course, ex­ploit writ­ten apolo­gies and do harm to the apol­o­gizer,” Mul­let says. “Be­ing a vic­tim does not au­to­mat­i­cally trans­form a per­son into a good per­son. The per­son who apol­o­gizes must, there­fore, be pru­dent.”

POST-APOL­OGY, YOU MAY FEEL like a bur­den has been lifted. Re­search shows that apolo­gies may ease an apol­o­gizer’s trou­bled con­science, kick­start the for­give­ness process among vic­tims, bring peo­ple closer and boost trust, even among strangers.

“Apol­ogy is an im­por­tant tool for re­build­ing a re­la­tion­ship to make it func­tional again,” Lewicki says.

Even if you stum­ble over your words, they’ll mean a lot. “Vic­tims usu­ally do ap­pre­ci­ate an apol­ogy,” Fehr says. “An apol­ogy is much more likely to have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the re­la­tion­ship than a neg­a­tive ef­fect.”

I know this first-hand: My friend and I had lunch re­cently, 15 years af­ter my be­lated apol­ogy. Con­fess­ing that ev­ery­thing had been my fault helped us over­come our rift and heal our bond. We’re both ap­pre­cia­tive to have our friend­ship to­day.

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