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The Science of Saying 'I'm Sorry'

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Dr. Michelle Golland: Apologies are a necessity in life. Our willingness to repair conflicts is onemeasure of our relationships' depth.After all, life is filled with disagreements and issues, whether they be with people at our workplace, our children's school or friends and family. How do we apologize to those in our lives? We want to do it successfully, in order to foster forgiveness, repair hurt feelings and truly resolve whatever the initial conflict may have been.

man giving flowers to woman

Turns out, there's a science to apologizing. The findings from a new set of studies help us define what makes a "good" apology, and also reveal how different types of people respond to different types of apologies. The key, apparently, is to consider who'll be receiving the "I'm sorry," so that the mea culpa will be most effective.

Researchers have identified three distinct types of apologies:

1) The Offer of Compensation
This type of apology involves offering some type of concrete action in order to restore the balance in the relationship. The action could be something tangible (such as replacing your neighbor's window because your child smashed it with his baseball), or it could be the promise to improve your behavior (such as offering to spend more time with your spouse because he's been feeling neglected).

2) The Expression of Empathy
This type of apology involves recognizing the pain or anger you have caused the other person, and then expressing real concern for his or her feelings. The love and care you express in your apology should make the recipient feel understood and valued. This type of apology restores trust that may have been violated; we often employ it in personal relationships. It's the type of apology we as parents are trying to get our kids to do all the time!

3) Acknowledgment of Violated Rules/Norms
This type of apology basically consists of declaring wrongdoing for breaking a group or family's code of behavior. The apology goes something like this: "I didn't just let myself down, I let down the entire medical profession" (which is how someone like Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's doctor at the time of his death, should apologize).

Researchers also identified the three distinct personality types that respond best to the above types of apologies:

1) "Independent Self-Concept"
These people see themselves as autonomous and individualistic. Because they are mostly focused on their own feelings and rights, they experience transgressions as a personal injury or betrayal.These people generally respond best to offers of compensation.

2) "Relational Self-Concept"
These people (most commonly women) are focused on maintaining and strengthening their relationships. Mutual respect and the rebuilding of trust are paramount to them, so apologies that include an expression of empathy and understanding will be most effective.

3) "Collective Self-Concept"
These people see themselves as part of a group, not as individuals. They value the bonds and rules that govern the organization with which they most identify (i.e., their company, church or family). With these people, apologies that acknowledge wrongdoing would best restore your status within the group and earn you the respect of the other group members.

When formulating an apology, remember to ask yourself: "Who am I apologizing to, and what do they need from my apology?" What troubled them the most about your transgression? Was it perceived as a personal injury, the betrayal of the relationship or the betrayal of a group "code"?

As a parent, I know that my children require different types of apologies. My son is ragingly independent and definitely perceives transgressions as a personal wound, whereas my daughter values relationships deeply and feels soothed by apologies that include empathy and understanding.


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