The effective apology is a mainstay of sound relationships. “I’m sorry” should be a win-win, but sometimes it isn’t. When we have been wronged, it feels good to have the transgressor acknowledge in some way their role in our discomfort, and when we feel guilty, it feels good to make amends.
However, researchers have found that an apology is more than a two-way street, and its effectiveness depends not only on the sincerity of the person apologizing but also on the needs and expectations of the receiver. An apology that is perceived as sincere can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. On the other hand, an apology that is perceived as insincere can lead to lack of trust. Result? Customers will badmouth businesses and move to other vendors, personal relationships will disintegrate, and leaders will fall from grace.
University of Maryland psychologists Ryan Fehr and Michele Gelfand have identified three components that impact the victim’s perception of an apology and therefore facilitate the process of forgiveness. According to their model, it is not enough for a transgressor to make what feels like a sincere and humble apology. In addition, the victim’s beliefs about relationship interactions need to be considered in the transgressor’s offer. Fehr and Gelfand propose that the success of an apology depends on the victim’s perceptions of the independent, relational, or collective self.
Apology #1: Offer Compensation to the Independent Self
The first kind of person, what psychologists call the independent self, is deeply concerned with personal rights and entitlements. You recognize these people because they act personally harmed following an offense. What you may think is a minor transgression feels like a violation of rights, unnecessary competition, or a personal offense to them, and you may find yourself on the other end of a finger pointing at “You, you, you.” A person like this whom you have wronged responds best to a certain kind of apology, the offer of compensation. Research done at Kobe University, Japan, by Ohtsubo and Watanabe supports this kind of apology and calls it “costly”. It signals that the transgressor is willing to incur some inconvenience or offer some gift in exchange for forgiveness.
To apologize effectively to the independent self, focus on what the victim feels has been lost. Ask, “What can I do for you?” to gain insight into what will help. While you may object to letting the victim feel that some moral high ground has been won, by not doing this you’ll run the risk of looking as if you don’t care about the relationship, and worse, that you are in some way superior to a person who is looking for you to restore equity. In a business setting, when compensation is offered to an independent self for poor service or other breach of expectation, the customer rates the business more highly than when he or she merely receive expressions of concern for inconvenience experienced.
Apology #2: Offer Empathy to the Relational Self
While the first kind of apology focuses on restoring equity through an exchange of goods or services, the second kind offers recognition and concern regarding the victim’s suffering, whether it be emotional or cognitive. You’ll recognize these people because instead of responding with deep anger, a clue to the belief that a violation of rights has occurred, the relational self needs an apology rooted in a sincere expression of sorrow for having harmed the relationship. They may express sadness and even fear about the future of the relationship, since rather than having violated equity in the relationship, the transgression has violated deep interpersonal trust and a sense of intimacy.
To apologize effectively to a relational self, you may need to express both warmth and compassion for the suffering you have caused and display your understanding of the victim’s point of view of the consequences of your offense. Before you say, “Eeeeeww” or “No way”, keep in mind that while there is no need for you to wallow around in guilt when you offer empathy, you will need to be sincere or the victim will not trust your intention. Your apology will come across as self-serving and even exploitative. This is challenging, and it may take several attempts to reestablish relational intimacy and forgiveness. Aim for honest communication, rather than inconsistent signals that can lead the receiver of an apology to believe that he or she is paying too much of the burden of restoring the relationship. What’s in it for you? You’ll rebuild trust, the foundation of continuing relationship.
Apology #3: Offer Acknowledgment of Violating Social Norms to the Collective Self
Whereas the first two types of effective apologies focus on restoring equity and offering empathy, in the third type the transgressor admits to having broken accepted rules and norms. In public life there are numerous examples of this sort of apology. In fact, it has become expected that celebrities (Tiger Woods for cheating on his wife and offending his fans), government officials (New York City for showing poor planning and judgment during the 2010 year-end blizzard), or business leaders (Steve Jobs when the then-new iPhone 4 dropped calls and had poor reception) will apologize for transgressions by pointing out the ways in which they have failed to live up to the expectations and accountability that the public ascribes to their positions. People for whom this sort of apology is most effective view themselves as part of a collective, all of whom depend on others to follow the accepted rules and norms.
To apologize effectively to the collective self, remember that your transgression takes on broader significance than just the personal. Acknowledging this in the apology will be key. In addition, you will need to demonstrate a new awareness of how your behavior supports the expectations and endeavors of the group. This means remembering some “nots”: not lying and denying, not making excuses for the offending behavior, not suggesting that you were merely experiencing a moment of weakness, and not passing the blame around.
It Matters How You Apologize
No matter to whom you apologize, remember that while you may be doing so to save face or to repair a relationship, the way you apologize most effectively is to include the victim’s needs. Forgiveness will be maximized when the apology fits the receiver.
Fehr, R. & Gelfand, M. J. (2010). When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. (113) 37–50.
Ohtsubo, Y. & Watanabe, E. (2009). Do sincere apologies need to be costly? Test of a costly signaling model of apology. Evolution and Human Behavior(30) 114-123.
Signing the Sorry card courtesy of strangejourney
Funny Money (used for Compensation) courtesy of Aart van Bezooyen
Quarreling Couple and Couple Making Up both from Microsoft Office
Sorry in Skywriting courtesy of Butupa
Reconciliation handshake courtesy of ThinkPanama
Great perspective on the apology. As I was reading, I began thinking of a great gift. When you go out of your way to tailor a gift to the receiver’s specific tastes it is greatly appreciated. The same with the apology. Nice thoughts.
In my new book Bouncing Back From Loss I relay that I was waiting for a sincere apology from my fiance – which never came. It would have made all the difference in the world to me.
Thanks, Orin and Donna Marie for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
Forgiveness without expectations is the best for everyone. Forgiveness without words can be positive as well. The ego is the problem and letting the ego go as much as possible is key to a better life and world.