The Rare Science of Good Apology
One rainy day, Harvard Business School researchers1 sent a student into a train station to ask commuters if he could borrow their cell phones. With half the people, he made a direct request, without any preemptive softening. With the other half, he started by apologizing for the rain before asking to borrow the stranger’s phone.
The superfluous apology (after all, the rain was hardly his fault) made strangers five times more likely to trust him with their phone—a graphic demonstration of the value of empathy and the power of a simple apology.
In the most comprehensive study to date, social scientists from Ohio State University2 ranked the importance of six elements of an apology. They found that effective apologies contained most, if not all, of these elements.
The most important element is to acknowledge responsibility (as when saying, “I made a mistake” and “It’s my fault”).
The next most powerful element is to offer to repair the situation. Most of us understand that words are cheap, so, when your actions back up your words, people believe you are truly sorry.
In this study, expressions of regret and declarations of repentance were both important, followed by explanations for what went wrong (although many practiced communicators will warn that explanations may erode the perceived sincerity of your apology).
It turns out that the least valuable element is to request forgiveness…but it won’t do you any harm, either!
You may now be tempted to carefully plan your next apology to include all of these basic elements. You may even rehearse what you’ll say, determined to have the offended person hear your apology the way you intend it. But I believe that there is one key principle not explicitly identified in this research that you will find invaluable.
Have you ever wondered why people shout when they get angry or argue, or when they have been wronged?
The answer is confoundingly obvious: We raise our voice when we think we have not been heard.
So, I propose that the fundamental secret to a successful apology is to show the offended person that they have been heard.
I once overheard a beautiful conversation between a young mother and her angry toddler.
Actually, the little boy was beyond angry…he’d just thrown a major tantrum. He had opened his lunch box to find that his favorite snack was missing.
“I’m very angry!” he shouted.
“Why?” Mom asked quietly.
“Because I’m very hungry,” he proclaimed.
“Is that all?” she politely probed.
“No. You left out the cheese!” he blurted.
“Is that all?” she questioned.
“No!” he pouted. “You always give John his favorites.”
“Is that all?” she calmly inquired.
“No! I think you love him more than me!” he announced, the storm within him finally reaching its furious peak as he dissolved into tears.
At this point, she gently held his hands, looked into his eyes, apologized for forgetting his favorite snack, and assured him that she loved him every bit as much as she loved his brother.
The offended child (and the captivated onlookers) had no doubt at all that he had been heard. And life continued smoothly.
“Is that all?”
Try preceding your next apology with this powerful question, repeated as many times as necessary to get to the root of the issue. It will help you to probe the depth of the offended person’s pain, setting you up for a meaningful apology—once they have been fully heard.
1Brooks, A. W., Dai, H., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2014). I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 467-474.
2Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount Jr., R. B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9(2), 177-196.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.