How to say “I’m sorry”

By — on / Daily, Dispute Resolution

Adapted from “Wise Negotiators Know When to Say ‘I’m Sorry’” by Maurice E. Schweitzer, Associate Professor, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In negotiation, it’s unavoidable: sooner or later, you’ll do or say something that offends or hurts your counterpart. Whether or not the harm you cause is intentional, you’ll need to rebuild trust and cooperation to repair the relationship.

One obvious yet powerful tool for doing so is an apology. Although economists and others have dismissed apologies as “cheap talk,” a substantial body of research has found that words can, in fact, go a long way toward repairing damaged bonds and agreements.

Unfortunately, most of us have had the experience of delivering an apology that fell on deaf ears. When apologies fail to achieve their aims, poor delivery is usually to blame. In particular, if the recipient thinks your apology is less than sincere, she is unlikely to forgive you.

This was the case in union-management negotiations at Philippines-based Golden Donut, Inc. When the management’s negotiating team showed up 35 minutes late to talks, the union’s team stormed out in protest. In an attempt to resume the process, the management team sent the union negotiators a letter that included an apology. Perceiving the apology to be insufficient, the union refused to reconvene and ultimately went on strike.

When it comes time to make an apology, how can you convey your sincerity? By delivering the apology in person, expressing it with emotion, and conveying a sense of personal responsibility and remorse. In one study, Edward Tomlinson of John Carroll University and Roy Lewicki of Ohio State University found that participants viewed apologies to be more sincere when they included internal attributions for the harm (for example, “It was my fault”) than when the apologies included external attributions (“Market conditions were poor”).

The ability to make a sincere apology also significantly rests on your credibility. In particular, a history of unfulfilled promises will limit the effectiveness of your apologies. My colleagues and I have found that apologies and promises were ineffective if the individual who committed a trust violation had issued a deceptive message earlier in the experiment. Therefore, don’t give assurances or make promises during a negotiation unless you’re certain you can follow through on them.

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