Aaron Lazare devotes two full chapters of On Apology and much of his subsequent research to questions of timing and delay. He finds that effective apologies typically contain four parts:
1. Acknowledge that you did it.
2. Explain what happened.
3. Express remorse.
4. Repair the damage, as much as you can.
This aligns with previous research on effective apologies:
Results indicated that relationships recovered significantly when offending partners used behaviors labeled as explicit acknowledgment, nonverbal assurance, and compensation.
What also turns out to be crucial is the timing of apologies — faster is not better. People need to feel they are heard and understood so a delayed apology is more satisfying.
The results were stark: “Apology timing was positively correlated with outcome satisfaction; when the apology came later in the conflict, participants reported greater satisfaction.” Statistical tests showed that, the greater the delay, the more a victim felt heard and understood. With more time, there was more opportunity for voice and understanding.
Let’s put this into context with some of the other things we’ve learned about effective apologies:
- Apologies do make a difference. People often prefer them over money, even if they’re just cheap talk.
- If it’s clear you intentionally did something wrong, you’re probably better off not apologizing. After intentional acts, apologies tend to backfire and make things worse.
- Giving money is not an effective way to apologize but research has shown that expensive gifts can work.
- The best way to apologize is not to apologize for what you think you did wrong. Apologize for what they think you did wrong.
- Being reminded of times when they did something wrong makes people more likely to accept apologies and forgive. So a little guilting might not be a bad idea.
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