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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

A Science-Backed Apology Formula That'll Go Over a Lot Better Than "I'm Sorry"

man apologizing to colleague

When we screw up and others get caught in our wake, oftentimes an effective apology is the key to calming the waters so that it can again be smooth sailing for our relationships at work, home, or elsewhere. But all apologies are not created equal.

We’ve all received those apologies that just didn’t quite get the job done or didn’t seem totally sincere. Maybe you’ve even offered up a few such mediocre mea culpas. I know I have.

Fortunately, a team led by Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business has taken a scientific approach to identifying the key components to saying “I’m sorry” that will pave the way to forgiveness.

“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” said Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study published in the May issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.

The research team conducted a pair of experiments involving a total of 755 people and their reaction that contained some or all of six important elements:

  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

Not surprisingly, the best apologies contained all six elements, but Lewicki says they did find that some of the six components are more critical to include in all apologies than others.

“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” he said, adding that it’s almost as important to offer a way to make things right. “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.”

Expressing regret, explaining what happened, and openly repenting all come in roughly in third place in terms of being important parts of an apology, while requesting for forgiveness probably won’t help matters much at all.

“That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” Lewicki said.

Both experiments involved participants responding after reading scenarios and potential apologies or apology components. Lewicki acknowledges that there are other components to saying “I’m sorry” that these experiments may not capture.

“Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” he said.

So, what’s the takeaway for saying sorry in a scientifically-sound way?

To put it simply: You gotta own it, and when it’s broke, you gotta fix it, every time. Then, if needed, you can get in to regrets, explanations, and repenting. Get those five parts, and you can probably forget the part where you formally ask for forgiveness. Hopefully, you will have already earned it.

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