Just saying "sorry" isn't enough.
As humans, we make mistakes all the time, and sometimes these mistakes lead to hurting someone or causing harm. Maybe you messed up at work and sent a client the wrong form, or perhaps you borrowed your roommate's car only to get into a small fender bender. You don't want to be a jerk, so you know you have to apologize.
Sometimes our apologies are accepted, and other times the apology has done nothing to ease the situation. You try to figure out what you did wrong when the person you apologized to doesn't accept your apology. Did they not think it was sincere? Then there are times when saying you're sorry just isn't enough.
In a new study called "An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies" published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, the authors figured out the elements to a successful apology.
The scientists found that the crucial element of an effective apology is accepting responsibility for your actions.
"Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgment of responsibility," said Roy Lewicki, professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business and lead author of the study. "Say it's your fault that you made a mistake."
In two separate experiments, Lewicki and his colleagues tracked how 755 people reacted to apologies. The researchers were able to determine the six most important factors in an effective apology:
- Acknowledgment of responsibility
- Offer of repair
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Declaration of repentance
- Request for forgiveness
While the best apologies have all six elements, not all the elements are equal. The most important component, as stated above, is accepting responsibility and the next most important element is offering to 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," Lewicki explained.
The next three elements (saying you're sorry, explaining, and promising to better the next time) are equal. The least effective element is asking for forgiveness. "That's the one you can leave out if you have to," Lewicki said.
Lewicki noted that in this study, the subjects simply read apology statements. And in the case of real world apologies, emotion and vocal inflections were powerful tools.
"Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology," he said.
When you fess up to making a mistake, make sure that your voice and body language match what you're saying, so your apology will come off as sincerely as you mean it.