The Science Behind “I’m Sorry”: Why to Say It, and How

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Dear Friends,

We all like to think that we’re great at apologizing, but the truth is that most of us are terrible at it. Yet mastering this deep and ancient skill can have a profound effect on our relationships. So this week, we offer you excellent advice on the subject, courtesy of executive coach Craig Dowden.

Have a great week!

Love,

Susan

The simple act of saying “I’m sorry” can be the catalyst in strengthening or breaking a relationship.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated how people responded to an apology from someone who had offended them. The longitudinal nature of the project allowed the researchers to examine the effect of the apology on forgiveness immediately after it was given, as well as several weeks following the incident.

They discovered that a person was more forgiving and less angry toward their transgressor when an apology was offered, and that those feelings lasted for a considerable period of time—sometimes up to months afterwards. In fact, people appeared to forgive their transgressors in direct proportion to the extent to which apologies and other conciliatory gestures were made. If the person in error was abundantly sorry and made considerable effort to make up for the incident, the person harmed was far more likely to forgive—and to do it far more quickly—than if the person was begrudging or slow in offering an apology.

Ultimately, the researchers found that an effective apology is invaluable in building stronger relationships and engendering trust.

The Three Characteristics of an Effective Apology

Given that apologizing is a “magic move,” how can we do it right? The research team behind the PNAS study identified these three characteristics of an effective apology:

1. Say “I’m Sorry.”

Stating those three magic words is an important part of a successful apology. People want to hear an open acknowledgment of regret. We also need to be specific about the words or actions for which we are apologizing. Acknowledging the specific offending behaviors helps the healing process and heightens trust that this should not happen in the future because we are showing that we understand what we did wrong.

For example:

Saying, “I’m so sorry for using the last of the copy paper and forgetting to tell you that we needed to order more,” is a far more effective apology than just saying, “Sorry about that,” or “Sorry, it won’t happen again.”

2. Offer a Form of Compensation.

This demonstrates genuine remorse for the harmful act, and an accompanied desire to facilitate healing. A direct way to do this is by asking, “What can I do to make up for this?”

It’s important that the form of compensation is heartfelt and aligned with the transgression. Otherwise, the gesture can come across as not truly being an apology and instead as though we are trying to “buy them off” with a gift.

For example:

Saying, “I’m so sorry about using the last of the copy paper. I’ll go buy a new box right now to replace it,” is far more effective than saying, “Sorry about that. Tell you what, coffee this afternoon is on me.”

This is why asking people what we can do to make amends is so critical, since the individual can provide guidance in this regard. Otherwise, a well-intentioned apologetic gesture may create even more conflict and frustration. This is especially important when we have no idea why the other person is upset with us. If we make an assumption and act accordingly, we run the risk of exacerbating the conflict.

3. Take Responsibility.

Don’t attempt to justify the behaviors in any way (e.g. “I was under stress at the time” or “I know I yelled at you in front of everyone, but you just told me the project was behind”). This suggests that we are not accepting responsibility and are blaming the circumstances and/ or the other person for provoking us. This undermines trust and weakens the apology.

For example: saying, “I’m sorry, but you didn’t tell me the copy paper was running low,” is neither effective nor an apology.

Avoid “Non-Apologies”

Don’t offer a “non-apology,” either, where we apologize for offending the other person, rather than apologizing for the behavior.

An egregious example of this type of non-apology is when someone says, “I’m sorry if you took it that way.” This often comes across as offensive and condescending because it can be interpreted as, “If you were smarter, you would have known what I really meant.”

Lastly, and just as importantly, make it a habit of apologizing only when necessary. Overusing an apology can make it come across as a knee-jerk reaction, which can dilute its effectiveness. The more others see earnest apologizing in practice—and the more they see what high value you place on it—the more likely they are to adopt it and pass it on to others.

Mistakes are unavoidable. When they occur, we can either allow them to negatively impact how others view us, or we can use them as an opportunity to repair and strengthen relationships. The choice is ours.

This excerpt was taken from Do Good to Lead Well – The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership by Craig Dowden (PhD) (ForbesBooks, 2019)

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