“A meaningful apology is one that communicates three R’s: regret, responsibility and remedy.” – Beverly Engel
When you say that you’re sorry to another person whom you’ve wronged, or who believes you’ve wronged them, what does your apology say about you? Is that even important? Doesn’t the fact that you deliver the apology in the first place hold greater weight? After all, an apology should be about the person harmed, not the offender.
While the apology has been much studied, not much literature exists about the effects of the apology on the apologist. Maybe it’s time that someone study that.
“I’m sorry.” But, do I really mean it?
Countless times each day we hear people say, “I’m sorry.” We say it when we inadvertently cut in front of someone to get into a door, when we bump into them in line, when we’re taking too long to order while a queue of customers snakes out the door. While we may mean what we’re saying, we likely don’t consciously think about the words. We just say them out of habit. Not that being quick to acknowledge the wrong or perceived wrong is bad, it may just be perceived as insincere — if it’s even overtly acknowledged. What’s the other person going to say, anyway? Unless they’ve got a wild hair, are easily angered, impatient or just rude, they won’t call you out on your behavior. But maybe we really don’t mean it. Others may notice, or they may have become so used to such feigned apologies that it doesn’t faze them anymore.
Timing is everything when you deliver your apology.
It’s a familiar quote, “Timing is everything.” Whether in whole or as part of a longer quote, the exact words have been uttered by sports professionals, entertainers, business executives, Internet sensations, religious leaders, politicians, chefs and others. There must be a germ of truth in the statement. In fact, there is, according to research.
Aaron Lazare, author of a book about the apology, and others have said that effective apologies generally share certain underlying features, the most important of which is timing of the apology. Lazare also said this about apologies: “One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies.” Early and delayed apologies, if heartfelt, can be equally effective.
A 2013 study published in the Western Journal of Communication, “Effects of Timing and Sincerity of an Apology on Satisfaction and Changes in Negative Feelings During Conflicts,” found variability in satisfaction of recipients of apologies relative to timing. Earlier apologies resulted in greater satisfaction in being understood during the communication in conflicts that could have gone past 10 minutes. On the other hand, later apologies were deemed more satisfying communications when delivered in less than 10 minutes of conflict discussions. One author noted that apologizing too frequently “becomes background noise.”
The lesson to take away here is to make a determined effort to be forthright in your apology, considering how and when best to deliver it so that the recipient is both ready to receive it and you can communicate honestly and empathetically.
It’s not about you, but an apology you make does affect you.
Granted, an apology is supposed to be about the other person, not you. Yet, the affect your apology has on you is often overlooked. To be more in touch with your motives, as well as your humility and humanity, it’s first wise to understand the basis and purpose of the apology. In an important study on apology by Cynthia Frantz of Oberlin College, “Better Late Than Early: The Influence of Timing on Apology Effectiveness,” the author reminds us to be more focused on the person we’re apologizing to than ourselves. The point is that you want to be reassuring to the point that he or she believes you sincerely understand your wrong. In addition, without acknowledging the wronged person’s emotional state, your apology likely will fall flat, being received as insincere.
However, it’s also worth noting that once you focus your intentions and fashion your words, giving appropriate thought to the timing and place to deliver your apology, you’re engaging in proactive behavior that will have an emotional affect on the recipient as well as you. You know you’ve followed through on a substantive issue, even at some pain, shame and embarrassment on your part. It feels good to lift this burden and you can move on from here.
If you blurt out the apology with no consideration of when and how it’s delivered, though, it likely says something quite different about you, perhaps that you’re more concerned with getting this off your mind than caring how it’s received. Other potential reflections of you as a person because of this ill-conceived and half-heartedly delivered apology could be that you’re self-centered, superficial, and overly consumed with appearances than substance.
Sex makes a difference, apparently.
It seems that men apologize less frequently than women, and that they report fewer offenses they believe they’ve committed. That’s according to a 2010 study published in Psychological Sciences, “Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior.” Another study found that men apologized more frequently to women than other men.
A side note is that hallmark traits of psychopaths include lack of empathy, lack of remorse or guilt, no matter how much they hurt others, failure to accept responsibility, pathological lying and shallow affect, among others. If a psychopath does offer an apology, it’s usually to exert control or manipulate the other person, as they are masters at both.
How to deliver a heartfelt, genuine apology.
You want to be earnest, honest, empathetic, concerned and compassionate when you’ve hurt someone by your actions or words and want to offer an apology. What does a real apology look like? It’s all the former and a few more necessary ingredients. A real apology must contain the following:
- Delivered with appropriate timing.
- Acknowledgement of the hurt you have caused.
- Recounting the incident in detail — so the wronged person knows you know what you’ve done wrong.
- Taking responsibility for the situation.
- Recognizing your part in the event.
- Stating your regret.
- Asking for forgiveness.
- Promising that it will not happen again.
Note that in some situations where you’ve wronged another, an apology is not complete unless and until you also make appropriate restitution.