New research has identified six elements to an apology, and the more of those elements you include, the more effective your apology. But not all six elements are equally valuable. Two are particularly crucial to having your apology accepted.
In 2008, Annie Wilson of Dallas, Texas, got a pretty memorable telephone call from her gardener. Your house is missing, he told her.
It was missing, all right. A contractor for Jackson State University had mistakenly demolished Wilson’s house instead of a university-owned building.
The apology issued by a university spokesman has been in my Bad Apology Hall of Fame since I came across it in 2008: “I’m sad that we made the mistake, and I wish that we hadn’t. It was nothing intentional.”
So what makes one apology potent and another, like Jackson State’s, fall flat (and even make us cringe)? Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University (and author of a popular negotiation textbook I used for years in my graduate negotiation course) and two colleagues have identified six ingredients that go into an apology that has good impact:
The research, reported in the May 2016 edition of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, concluded that the best apologies contained all six elements, though two elements are most important:
Acknowledgment of responsibility: Says Lewicki, “Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”
Offer of repair: “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
Expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance all carried similar weight and came in third in terms of importance to the receiver. Request for forgiveness was the least effective ingredient and one, concluded the researchers, that could be skipped if necessary.
The study examined only content of the apology, not body language, tone of voice, or emotions conveyed. So, as I find myself saying frequently, be careful about “techniquing” somebody — the six elements alone may not work their magic if everything about your tone and demeanor tells a different story.