Science Reveals the Best Way to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Two new studies suggest an apology is complex — at least if you want it to be effective.

Merriam-Webster defines “apology” as “a statement saying that you are sorry about something” or “an expression of regret for having done or said something wrong.”

But two new studies suggest an apology is more complex than that — at least if you want it to be effective.

Researchers from Ohio State University and Eastern Kentucky University put six components of an apology to the test. They concluded that some of those components are more crucial than others in effective apologies.

The researchers concluded that the six apology components — in order of importance, with some of the items finishing in a tie — are:

  • Acknowledgment of responsibility
  • Offer of repair
  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Request for forgiveness

In two separate experiments involving a total of 755 people, the researchers tested out apologies that contained anywhere from one to six of these components. One experiment involved people who were recruited online, and the other involved undergraduate students.

All of the participants read the same scenario in which a candidate was interviewing for a job in an accounting department. The candidate was apologizing after the interviewer confronted the candidate about having filed an incorrect tax return at a prior job, understating the client’s capital gains income.

The study results, published in the May issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, show that the most important apology component is acknowledgement of responsibility.

Lead study author Roy Lewicki, an OSU professor emeritus of management and human resources, explains in a news release that this means “say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”

The second-most effective component is an offer of repair. As Lewicki puts it:

“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.”

The third-most effective component is essentially a three-way tie between expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance.

That leaves a request for forgiveness as the least effective component.

What have you found to be the most important ingredient in an apology? Share your thoughts with us below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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