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If you’re forever in the doghouse for your inability to apologize, this research from Ohio State University will come in handy.
In two separate experiments, researchers tested how 755 people reacted to apologies and found six specific elements were the most effective.
In the first study, 333 participants were recruited online through Amazon’s MTURK program (a service where you can complete simple tasks in exchange for pay). All the participants read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department hiring a new employee. At a previous job, the potential employee filed an incorrect tax return. When confronted about the issue, the job candidate apologized.
The participants were told that the apology contained one, three, or all six of the apology components (more on these in a bit). They were then asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very) how effective and believable the apology was.
In the second study, 422 undergraduate students were asked to read the same scenario above, but instead of being told which components the apology contained, they read an actual apology including anywhere from one to six statements based on those elements. For example, for acknowledging responsibility (slide 3), the apology statement read “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.”
These participants also rated how effective and believable the apology was.
While the study results from the two experiments weren’t identical, researchers concluded the more elements a apology contained, the more effective it was. Also, participants were less likely to accept apologies when the job applicant showed a lack of integrity versus a lack of competence. So if she’s mad at you for not being able to fix a broken toilet (after you refused to call a plumber), you’ll obviously have a better shot at being forgiven than if you cheated.
Curious what elements make up the best apology? Keep reading.
1. Express your regret
“Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” study author Roy Lewicki said in a press release. Saying ‘sorry’ isn’t enough—especially if you’re mumbling the words under your breath, sulking, and looking down at your shoes when you do it. Be heartfelt and genuine. Look her in the eye and tell her you feel awful about making her upset. Keep any sarcasm from your tone, too. You never want to downplay an apology by saying: “I don’t think I said/did anything wrong, but I’m sorry you’re taking it the wrong way.”
2. Explain what went wrong
Intentions are everything when it comes to right and wrong. Because morals can be a murky, blurred mess, it makes a big difference if you hurt her feelings on accident versus if you set out to hurt her. Here’s an example: Your girlfriend told you about how she pulled a Jessica Simpson and thought “Chicken of the Sea” tuna fish really was chicken. You might see it as innocent and naïve (in a cute way) and tell the story to a group of friends at dinner. She might be mortified by you exposing her slip-up, especially since she’s the butt of the joke. If she brings it up later on, tell her you weren’t being malicious. Say you were coming from a completely innocent place and would never intentionally make her feel belittled. Don’t tell her she’s over-reacting (even if you think she is).
3. Take responsibility
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility,” Lewicki says. “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.” The majority of the time, women just want you to acknowledge you were in the wrong. The topic you’re arguing about might not even be the fuel that’s stoking her rage; it might be that you’re unable to take responsibility and own up to your mistakes. If you can do this, and do it without her prompting you to, then you can dodge and reduce the duration of your fights exponentially.
4. Say you’ll repent—and actually do it
If you apologize for not taking out the trash, then forget to do it again the next week, the argument is going to pick up where you left off. It may seem inconsequential to you, but your girlfriend might be perceiving it as a slight. She may think you don’t care enough about what she asks of you and what she wants, and you’re simply ignoring her. So, review your actions and commit to making a change to resolve your bad habits.
5. Tell her you’ll fix things
The second most important element of an apology is offering to fix things, Lewicki says. “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” he adds. “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.” If you spent $1,000 on a dirt bike you were both setting aside for vacation or to move into a new apartment, run through the previous steps and then tell her you’ll make things right. Show her you mean what you say by backing up your words with actions and offering to return the bike. Sometimes just this gesture alone will resolve the argument without you having to physically do anything.
6. Ask for forgiveness
In both studies, the request for forgiveness was seen as least important: “That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” Lewicki says. Surprising? It’s not if you take the time to express each of the above elements. If you jump straight to asking for forgiveness before you even say sorry, there’s a slim chance that’s actually going to happen.
Apologies really do work, but you can’t rush the process. Ultimately, the more of these elements you include when you say you’re sorry, the more effective your apology will be. But if you get into a fight out with friends, pull her to the side and acknowledge you were wrong, then say you’ll fix it. These are the two most crucial elements to having your apology accepted when you’re pressed for time.