On her wedding day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that she was given this sage piece of advice by her mother-in-law: “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” (And I would add, a little forgetful!) But no matter how deaf – or forgetful – we may be, transgressions big and small are part of any meaningful long-term relationship. And consequently, the ability to apologize for these transgressions is a vitally important skill for relational wellness.1

But what do we actually know about an effective apology? Since we were children, we’ve been told to “say you’re sorry”. And while this is a good start (except, ironically, when forced to do it by an authority figure), it is woefully incomplete. Thankfully, researchers have dissected the elements of a good apology and measured their efficacy. In a 2016 study entitled An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research (NCMR), the authors present six-step process for apologizing that was derived from previous research: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgement of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness.

These components were presented to subjects—singly and in various combinations. The results of the study match what we would intuitively expect: not all apologies are viewed equally. Apologies with more components were more effective than those with fewer components.

Fleshing them out in more detail, the six components are:

  • Expression of regret: Say “I’m sorry”
  • Explanation of what went wrong: Explain the offense, especially if it conveys that it was unintentional. Avoid explanations that sound like excuses or shifting the blame to the offended person (e.g., “You were being really loud and obnoxious”).
  • Acknowledgment of responsibility: Indicate that you recognize that you were responsible and you caused the other person harm. Language is important here: note the difference in transmission between “I’m made a mistake” versus “Mistakes were made”. Acknowledge the specific offense: “I’m sorry for making that joke at your expense in front of my friends” instead of “I’m sorry for whatever I said yesterday.” Stay away from “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” which shifts the blame to the offended person. Also, avoid offering something like “That was uncharacteristic of me”, which again conveys an abdication of ownership.
  • Declaration of repentance: Communicate any feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, or remorse that you feel shows that you recognize and regret the pain you created. Acknowledge your disappointment in yourself and your commitment to improve.
  • Offer of repair: Make amends for the any damage, whether tangibly (e,.g. by repairing or replacing any property damaged) or intangibly (e.g. taking steps to ameliorate your behavior by attending marriage counseling). The intent here is to be of benefit to the other person and your relationship as a whole, and not solely to alleviate your own feelings of guilt or shame. Get input from the offended person about what would be most personally meaningful without putting all the burden on them – one way of doing this is to individually brainstorm some ideas for reparation and present them as choices along with your apology. This demonstrates that you’re taking the matter seriously and you’ve done some legwork accordingly.
  • Request for forgiveness: Empowering the person you offended by asking “Can you forgive me?”

There are other models and frameworks for apologizing. One such alternative was developed by the author of the Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, and psychologist (and self-described “Apology Expert”) Jennifer Thomas. Predictably called the “Five Apology Languages,” the model’s elements that are virtually identical to the NCMR paper, with slight changes in verbiage: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness. (Indeed, the one missing element is “Explanation of what went wrong,” which arguably may or may not be helpful depending on how skillfully it’s done as it can easily be perceived as crossing into the territory of making excuses.) Of note, the Chapman and Thomas model differs from the NCMR model in that it suggests that most people will need only one or two of these elements as their preferred form of apology. As with the general “Love Languages” notion, there is no scientific data to support their claim.

Whichever apology model you use, there are certain features that should definitely be included – the NCMR paper found that acknowledgement of responsibility and offer of repair where were deemed more important than the other apology components. And while there may be an argument made for tailoring components to an individual’s “apology language,” it’s doubtful that you can go wrong including them all. Better be safe, in being sorry.

  1. Forgiveness also plays a pivotal role. Indeed, research suggests that forgiveness after a transgression is a major predictor of long-term stability in romantic relationships. ↩︎