The Right Way to Say I’m Sorry

New research sheds light on how to make the most of an apology in negotiation.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

On April 6, former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the maximum punishment allowed, after receiving a misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to flout mine safety rules. In 2010, 29 Massey miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch coal dust explosion in West Virginia, while Blankenship was at the company’s helm. A state panel concluded that, to maximize his personal compensation, Blankenship had pushed managers to put coal production above safety concerns.

At his sentencing, Blankenship maintained his innocence. “It’s important for everyone to know that I am not guilty of any crime,” he told U.S. District Judge Irene Berger. “There’s no direct evidence that I committed any crime.” Blankenship then attempted to apologize to family members of those who died in the blast, but the judge cut him off and scolded him for failing to live up to the expectations of his community, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

As Blankenship left the courthouse, relatives of the victims shouted bitterly at him. “For six years, he never apologized,” Tommy Davis, a former Massey miner whose brother was killed in the explosion, told reporters through tears, according to Bloomberg News.

In negotiations and conflict resolution efforts, an apology can be a powerful, even essential means of repairing a trust violation. In a 2009 review of legal disputes, Albany Law School professor Elizabeth A. Nowicki found that apologies can improve the odds of settlement, reduce legal and other costs, save time, and mitigate the fallout from damaged reputations and relationships. To take one example, hospitals that adopted apology procedures for medical errors faced fewer lawsuits and reached cheaper claim settlements than those that did not have such policies, Columbia Law School professor Carol Liebman and mediator Chris Hyman found in one study.

By contrast, those who fail to apologize or whose apologies are perceived to be insufficient may have difficulty restoring their reputations and regaining trust, as Blankenship’s situation suggests.
What are the hallmarks of an effective apology in negotiation and conflict resolution? Ohio State University professors Roy J. Lewicki and Robert B. Lount, Jr., and Eastern Kentucky University professor Beth Polin examined this question in a new study in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.

Six components of apologies

Lewicki and his colleagues present a list of six components that can be included in an apology:

1. An expression of regret: “I felt terrible when I realized the harm I caused.”
2. An explanation for why the offense occurred: “I made the mistake because I was in a hurry and working too quickly.”
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility for any harm caused: “I was wrong, and I accept responsibility for my actions.”
4. A declaration of repentance that signals the violator won’t repeat the action: “I regret that this occurred, and I have learned my lesson. It won’t happen again.”
5. An offer of repair that clarifies the steps the violator is willing to take to remedy the situation: “I will compensate you for the expenses related to the error.”
6. A request for forgiveness: “I humbly ask you to forgive my mistake.”

As they approached their experiments, the researchers theorized that (1) certain of these apology components would be more effective than others at restoring trust, and (2) the more components an apology included, the more effective it would be.

Because the nature of a trust violation also may affect how people receive an apology, the researchers were interested in studying whether apologies for competence-based trust violations—those caused by a lack of knowledge or experience—would be better received than apologies for integrity-based trust violations—those caused by intentional unethical behavior.

Weighing apologies

In one experiment conducted online, the researchers asked several hundred individuals to imagine that they were reviewing the application of a job candidate for an accounting position; the candidate had been reported for filing a client’s tax return incorrectly. Some participants were asked to imagine that the candidate made the error because of a lack of knowledge of tax codes (a competence-based violation). Others were told the candidate knowingly filed the tax return incorrectly (an integrity-based violation).

Next, participants were asked to imagine that the candidate responded by using one of the six apology components described earlier (presented one at a time), three of the components, or all six of them. They then were asked how effective, credible, and adequate such an apology statement would be.

Overall, participants evaluated apologies for competence-based violations more positively than apologies for integrity-based violations. In addition, although apologies with three or just one of the six apology components were viewed similarly, apologies with all six components were received most positively.

Of the six components, acknowledgment of responsibility and an offer of repair were most favorably received. A request for forgiveness was the least effective. When three components were bundled together, the most effective bundle was an acknowledgment of responsibility, an offer of repair, and an explanation. By comparison, the least effective bundle was an expression of regret, a declaration of repentance, and a request for forgiveness.

The value of taking responsibility

Overall, Lewicki, Polin, and Lount find that the more elaborate an apology is, the more favorably it will be received. In addition, certain components are more valued than others, particularly an acknowledgment of responsibility and an offer to repair the broken trust. By contrast, merely asking for forgiveness or expressing regret is unlikely to have much of an effect. In addition, victims are more accepting of trust violations when lack of competence is to blame than when lack of integrity is the underlying issue.

The public apology has become a virtual rite of passage for individuals and organizations who have hurt or offended others. The results of this study suggest that when an apology is warranted, you would be wise to craft one that is thorough and expressly acknowledges your mistakes and eagerness to make things right.

A final note: Because there can be liability issues related to apologizing, you may want to check with a lawyer before expressing wrongdoing or admitting to mistakes. You may still be able to apologize, but your lawyer may have specific guidance on how to do so.


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