Friday, August 16, 2013

I'm Sorry: The Four Key Ingredients To A Successful Apology

The more you can look like this puppy,
the better your apology will be.
I am getting closer to finishing my book, How To Raise Boys, and every now and then, I run across information that is too good not to share.

Yesterday, I found a fascinating article published in 2012 in the journal Peace Psychology. A team of researchers examined the types of apologies that work and compared them to apologies that are less successful. Obviously, when you have messed up, you have little control over how the aggrieved person is going to react when you say you are sorry. But, there are four steps you can use to maximize the potential that the person will accept your apology. The researchers discovered these techniques are most important for really big mistakes, although they probably work for minor inconveniences, too.

Here is what you need to do:

1. Show genuine emotion during the apology. You can do this through your behaviors (e.g. crying, looking sad, adopting a conciliatory posture, etc.). Or, you can do this through your words (e.g. "I am really sad that I made you so upset the other day"). If you do not convey your emotion, the words you say will come across as less genuine and less believable.

2. Admit fault. Say, "It was my fault." Or, "I messed up." Or, "I was wrong." By doing this, you are letting the person know you are taking responsibility for your actions.

3. Actually say, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." The person to whom you are apologizing needs to know you are apologizing. Thus, you need to explicitly say so.

4. Try to explain your behavior. This one is tricky. You don't want to come up with excuses or rationalizations. That will make it sound like you are not taking responsibility for what you have done. But, it can be helpful to give some context to your behavior so the person has a better understanding of why you did what you did. For example, you might say something like, "I was really frustrated because I didn't sleep well, and the traffic was terrible. When I finally got to the party, I was in a terrible mood. Then I snapped at you, which you didn't deserve. I wasn't actually mad at you--I was reacting to all of the crappy stuff that happened earlier in the day."

Keep in mind, Step 4 requires you to think reflectively about your behavior and why you acted the way you did. If you don't put any thought into it prior to your apology, this step will not go well.

Another thing to keep in mind: you need to genuinely feel remorse for what you've done for these steps to work. If you don't feel sorry, your apology will probably reflect your less-than-apologetic attitude.

I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(2), 109-130.


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