Many people avoid saying “I’m sorry” because admitting to wrongdoing makes them uncomfortable.
“Apologies force us to admit to ourselves that we don’t always live up to our own standards,” says Ryan Fehr, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.
Research shows that apologies can ease your conscience, improve mental health, repair damaged relationships, kickstart the forgiveness process, increase trust and boost self-esteem. Experts advise:
Build your apology. Ohio State University researchers found that effective apologies have six components: Expressing regret, explaining what went wrong, acknowledging responsibility, declaring repentance, offering to repair the situation and requesting forgiveness.
“The more of those components that were included, the more likely the apology was seen as credible,” says study author Roy Lewicki.
Consider timing. Delay apologizing if your victim is angry; it may stop him from being receptive, says Antony Manstead, psychology professor at Cardiff University in Wales.
Delayed apologies can also be effective because you’ve had time to reflect upon your transgressions, says Mara Olekalns, professor of management at Melbourne Business School. But wait too long and you’ll appear remorseless.
Choose your words. Avoid these pitfalls:
Making excuses. “People often water down their apology with excuses,” says Roger Giner-Sorolla, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in England. “Admitting wrong [may] make you worried that you’re a bad person.”
Belittling feelings. “[Implying] that the other person is wrong to feel upset or angry,” Olekalns says, “diminishes and invalidates their experience.”
Pointing fingers. “[This] is deflecting responsibility onto the victim for being too sensitive,” Fehr says.
Offering a non-apology. ““It uses the form of an apology – ‘I’m sorry’ – but [shifts] responsibility to the offended person,” Giner-Sorolla says.
Pick a medium. Face-to-face apologies are best; facial expressions, body posture and tone of voice can convey remorse.
“Anyone can type, ‘I feel really ashamed,’ but if you say it live, it’s obvious whether or not you really mean it,” Giner-Sorolla says.