Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, points to the Republican congressman for an example of a well pulled-off mea culpa. When Ryan addressed congressional interns on Capitol Hill last month, he apologized for the way he used to talk about poor people in the U.S. He said:
There was a time that I would talk about a difference between "makers" and "takers" in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized something. I realized that I was wrong. "Takers" wasn't how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn't castigate a large group of Americans just to make a point.
Lewicki pointed out just why this statement worked, based on the findings of his study published in the May issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. The most important element of an apology -- acknowledgement of responsibility -- is there as Ryan describes how he used to think and talk, and then admits that he was wrong. Ryan then says that learning more about the root causes of poverty helped changed his views, which is an explanation of what went wrong: he didn't know the real reasons Americans are poor and need government benefits. Ryan ends by saying that he "shouldn't castigate a large group of Americans," which signals repentance, and that it won't happen again.
"In a world where politicians can't admit changing their views without being nailed by the opposition as 'flip-flopping,' his statement is even more bold and authentic," said Lewicki.
However, Ryan isn't quite off the hook with the general public yet, he explained. That comes if and when he actually shows signs that he's following through on his promise to be better.
Apologies are hard to make. While everyone agrees that insincere apologies are totally repellant, what if you’re trying to make amends and you honestly don’t know if your “sorry” is coming off well?
Here to help you craft your next apology, admission of guilt before the media or any other public mea culpa is Lewicki's research, which finds there are six basic elements of an effective apology. The more points you hit, the more likely it is that your apology will be accepted, says Lewicki. And some elements are more important than others.
The 6 elements of a sincere apology
In addition to the three elements Ryan included in his apology, there are three that have varying degrees of significance. Here are all six, in order of importance.
1. Acknowledgement of responsibility: This means admitting something was your fault and taking ownership over the mistake. This is in direct opposition to the notorious “mistakes were made” non-apology apology, popular among politicians and others looking to shirk legal obligation. That phrase communicates to the listener that a problem occurred, but the “apologizer" doesn’t know who did it, if there are any consequences, or how serious it is, explained Lewicki.
2. Offer of repair: This is when people promise to correct the mistake they made by explaining what they’re going to do to fix things.
3. Expression of regret: This is the actual apology, when you get to say “I’m sorry." Interestingly, Lewicki found that this was only the third-most important thing you should say when apologizing to someone.
4. Explanation of what went wrong: It’s tough to not let this part veer off into excuses. The value of trying, says Lewicki, is that it provides an explanation that the wronged party can hopefully understand and empathize with. However, there are at least two different kinds of explanations, and they could affect the way an apology lands.
The first explanation is one of competence: Was the wrongdoing an honest mistake, something that was overlooked accidentally or something that wasn’t properly considered? Or was the wrongdoing a violation of integrity that reflects on the apologizer’s character? In other words, was it accidental or on purpose?
5. Declaration of repentance: Lewicki says that this is an opportunity to promise that you won’t let the mistake happen again.
6. Request for forgiveness: Interestingly, this is the least important element of an apology according to Lewicki's survey research. All six elements will depend on the situation, but Lewicki suspects that this element in particular could depend most on context. Are the aggressor and wronged party emotionally connected, and are they trying to re-build a relationship? Or is the apology about a business transaction gone wrong, and thus isn’t as emotionally charged? These contextual clues could determine whether or not a request for forgiveness is truly needed.
You don’t have to hit all six of these for the apology to work, says Lewicki, but by far the most important components are the first two. Elements three through five are of equal weight, and element six is the one you can leave out and still achieve the desired effect of being forgiven.
How people rated the elements of a good apology
Lewicki drew from theory and research in the communication sciences, rhetoric, crisis communication and social and clinical psychology to come up with the six essential elements of an apology. To figure out how much weight each one carried, he conducted two studies that tested various statements on participants.
Lewicki asked a total of 755 study participants in two different groups to score how effective, credible and adequate written apologies were, based on the elements in the statement. He found that the more elements an apology contained, the more likely the participants were to score it as effective.
He also asked the study participants to evaluate each element individually, which revealed that acknowledgement of responsibility and the offer of repair were the two most meaningful aspects of an apology. Both groups also agreed that a request for forgiveness was the least important component of an apology.
Why are effective apologies so difficult?
Just because an apology hits some of these notes doesn't mean it is guaranteed to resonate. Last February, Filipino boxer and politician Manny Pacquiao said he was sorry for comparing gay people to animals. In an Instagram post, he wrote:
I'm sorry for hurting people by comparing homosexuals to animals. Please forgive me for those I've hurt. I still stand on my belief that I'm against same sex marriage because of what the Bible says, but I'm not condemning LGBT. I love you all with the love of the Lord. God Bless you all and I'm praying for you.
Pacquiao's apology takes responsibility for his actions, and he says "I'm sorry" that he hurt the LGBT community. He also explicitly asks for forgiveness. However, Pacquiao's history of statements maligning gay people and gay marriage make his repeated apologies more and more suspect, Vox points out.
Lewicki’s study didn’t address why people might find it difficult to craft an effective apology, but past research on the subject reveals we may have a neurological bias toward viewing ourselves positively, which leads us to believe we’re always doing the right thing -- even if that right thing turns out to be wrong. And when we apologize for our wrongdoing, it requires having to admit that we behaved in a way that was contrary to the positive way we think about ourselves, which could lead to passive-voice “mistakes were made” apologies, or the infamous “if apologies” -- apologizing if other people were offended or hurt. In Pacquiao's case, it's clear that his admission of wrongdoing is in direct conflict with his deeply held belief that gay relationships are forbidden by the Bible.
In future research, Lewicki hopes to evaluate the effect the six elements may have on a person who is listening to an apology. He suspects that being able to hear the emotion in someone’s voice may change up the importance of certain elements, or help them better judge the sincerity or authenticity of the apology. He also acknowledged that the results of his study could change drastically if the study participants were people who had actually been wronged, hurt, or harmed in a real-life situation.
Because most public figures issue written statements of regret (while us mere mortals are reduced to saying "I'm sorry" aloud), Lewicki's research is probably most applicable to them. Here's hoping their PR reps read some of Lewicki's tips the next time they're called upon to craft an apology.