How to Apologize Effectively, According to Science
WASHINGTON—There are six elements to an apology and the more of them you use, the more effective your apology will be, according to a new study published in the current issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.
“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” said Roy Lewicki, study author and professor emeritus at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Not all elements have equal value, however, and two of the elements are more important than the others.
For the study, researchers conducted two separate experiments testing how 755 individuals reacted to apologies that contained one to six of the following 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
The researchers found that the most effective apologies contained all six elements, but the elements were not all equal.
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki said.
Following in importance was an offer of repair.
“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,” explained Lewicki.
The researchers found that the least effective element was a request for forgiveness, with the other three elements (expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance) tied for third place in importance and effectiveness.
While the experiments involved participants reading apology statements in a hypothetical situation, Lewicki noted that emotion and voice inflection are also important and may have a powerful effect on the person receiving the apology.
“Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” said Lewicki.
STUDY: “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies”