What does the research say about the best way to apologize?
Don’t apologize for what you think you did wrong. Apologize for what they think you did wrong:
…victims reacted most positively to apologies that were congruent with their self-construals.
The most effective apologies have four parts:
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.
Timing is crucial — and faster is not better. People need to feel they are heard and understood so a delayed apology is actually 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.
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:
An apology does not help at all after clearly intentionally committed offenses. On the contrary, after such offenses harmdoers do better not to apologize since sending an apology in this situation strongly increases punishment compared to remaining silent.
Are they not accepting your apology? A little guilting can be effective. Being reminded of times when they did something wrong makes people more likely to accept apologies and forgive:
…participants in the recall-self-as-wrongdoer condition were significantly more likely to accept the apology from the classmate and forgive the transgression.
A Final Tip
Hopefully you won’t need this list too often. However, you may want to keep the principles in mind for next time you get pulled over. Studies have shown that apologizing to the police is one of the few effective ways to get out of a speeding ticket.
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