Put Apologies in Your Toolbox

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Regain Your Counterpart’s Trust with an Apology,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

The problem: Whether you meant to or not, you’ve hurt or offended your negotiating counterpart through your words or actions. Perhaps you’ve shown up late for an appointment one time too many, neglected to follow through on a key contract term, or made an off-the-cuff remark that the other party found insulting. When left unaddressed, such slights can cause serious damage to relationships and agreements.

The tool: An apology can go a long way toward restoring the other side’s trust and confidence¬, according to professor Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Much more than a quick “I’m sorry,” a true apology requires you to accept blame and express regret for upsetting or angering your counterpart.

Operating instructions: A sincere apology can include up to seven of the following components, according to Schweitzer and Wharton colleagues Jack Hershey and Eric Bradlow. They include: (1) a statement of apology (“I’m sorry”), (2) an expression of remorse (“I feel terrible about this!”), (3) an offer to help (“I’ll be sure to tell your boss that this is all my fault”), (4) self-blame (“It was careless of me to have made this mistake”), (5) a request for forgiveness (“Please accept my heartfelt apology”), (6) a promise regarding the future (“I won’t let this happen again”), and (7) an explanation (“I was so busy with another project that I let this fall through the cracks”). Although not all of these components are necessary for an apology to be effective, as a general rule, the more serious the violation, the more detailed the apology should be.

What it can do: When someone feels wounded by your behavior, she might call off a deal or even retaliate by trying to harm your reputation. A carefully expressed apology is likely to head off such damage, says Schweitzer. Moreover, in some situations, a negotiator may value a heartfelt expression of apology above all else. Plaintiffs in cases of abuse, including some who have settled lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in the United States, sometimes insist upon receiving an apology along with financial settlements or jury awards, for example.

A promise to be more trustworthy in the future may be especially valued by someone who feels wronged, Schweitzer and his colleagues found in their research. Finally, in research on mediation, Jennifer Robbennolt of the University of Illinois School of Law discovered that disputants who issued apologies achieved much better financial outcomes than did those who neglected to apologize. It seems that injured parties are likely to become less demanding after receiving an apology.
Safety warning: If the target of your apology thinks you’re being insincere, he’s unlikely to forgive you, warns Schweitzer. How can you convey sincerity? To begin with, don’t bother apologizing unless you truly feel sorry. If you think you’ve been unfairly targeted for something that went wrong, discuss your differences with the other party rather than rushing through an insincere apology.

If you do feel contrite, give the injured party plenty of time to express his concerns and then reflect on your mistakes, advises Robbennolt. Deliver your apology in person, express it with remorse, accept responsibility, and follow through with any actions you’ve promised. Finally, remember that honesty and openness are essential throughout the negotiation process. When you’re careful not to make promises you can’t keep, you avoid the need to apologize later.

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