For many, apologizing can be a difficult behavior in which to engage, but we all have been there. Showing up late to a meeting, misplacing an item belonging to someone else, or not returning a phone call are pretty typical situations when we might hear an apology expressed. What is the intended purpose of an apology, though? With much of my career rooted in studying human behavior, I often explore the potential function(s) a certain behavior serves an individual. Doing this allows me to have a much better understanding of the individual and also the situation.
Demonstrating concern for the well being of others has evolved with us as a species. We are driven by a need to be connected to and included by others, and it’s pretty safe to assume that apologizing has evolved with us because of this characterization. This has also no doubt lead to the further development of our basic emotional states during our evolution; moving beyond happy, sad, or mad. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Guilt.
Merriam Webster (2018) defines guilt a number of ways, but for our purposes as, “the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously” or “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses”. This feeling is one that largely influences us to want to correct the situation, which usually leads to the apology. The act of apologizing is necessary for maintaining our position within our social groups, so it does become necessary that we follow through.
While apologies are definitely necessary, they are most definitely NOT created equal. The following apologies are very common and, on the surface, sound completely appropriate. They are; however, lacking in the basic elements that have been found to be key to an effective and sincere apology.
“Sorry I’m late!”
“I’m so sorry you’re upset with me being late. Wal-Mart was packed and they only had just a couple of cashiers. I ended up having to just leave my cart, so I could get here.”
“Sorry. It was not my intention to be late, but I didn’t have any other time in my schedule today to run errands. You understand, you’re busy too.”
Roy Lewicki, author and professor emeritus at OSU’s Fisher College of Business, reported on a finding he and his team uncovered while studying apologies. They found that the two most important components to an apology is taking responsibility for the wrong and offering a resolution. These are two components that are absent in the above examples.
Our apologies are not about us. They’re really about the other person. I think we all know this because it’s likely the reason why apologies are difficult to express sometimes. But when we say things like, “it wasn’t my intent” or we don’t acknowledge our behavior at all, we’re sort of minimizing what’s happened. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what our intention was because it was the impact of our behavior that created an issue.
When we can take responsibility for the impact of our behavior, we are validating the other person and we’re communicating to them that we recognize what’s happened. Offering a resolution takes the apology one step further. We’re now showing the other person that not only am I acknowledging my behavior, but I am also devoted to correcting the issue, so that there can be some repair. So let’s take a look at apologies that are more appropriate examples compared to those above.
“I’m so very sorry I was late getting here. You look upset, and I don’t blame you. I lost track of time, which is completely my fault. I would like to make the time up to you. I can add the minutes to the end of your massage tonight, or I can add them to your next appointment. Whichever option is most convenient for you.”
“I’m so sorry I am late! This is completely my fault and I would like to make it up to you in any way that I can.”
I should probably point out that there will be situations when taking steps to resolution may not make sense. For example, if you bump into someone, stopping and taking the time to acknowledge this mistake while apologizing vs. quickly blurting out “SORRY” as you continue to rush by would certainly be appropriate.
Asking ourselves, “What kind of message do we want to send?” is critical. Repairing and restoring any type of relationship is much more likely to happen when the right components of an apology are present.