How to say sorry and give a good apology (according to researchers) : NPR

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There are certain words that can slip into apologies but should be avoided, experts say.

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There are certain words that can slip into apologies but should be avoided, experts say.

jayk7/Getty Images

There is something very powerful about receiving or giving a heartfelt and genuine apology.

Bad apologies, on the other hand, can be disastrous and lead to more hurt.

The new book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for a Good Apologydraws from a wide range of research to explain the power of apologies, why we don’t always get the right ones, and the best way to tell someone you’re sorry.

Co-authors Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy break down the six (and a half) steps to a great apology. They are:

  1. Say you’re sorry. Not that you are “sorry,” not that you are “devastated.” Say you’re “sorry.”
  2. Say what you are apologizing for. Be specific.
  3. Show that you understand why it was wrong, take ownership, and show that you understand why you caused hurt.
  4. Don’t make excuses.
  5. Say why it won’t happen again. What steps are you taking?
  6. If relevant, make repairs: “I will pay for the dry cleaning. Send me the bill. I will do my best to fix what I did.”

“These six steps are relevant for adults, for children, for corporations, for institutions, for governments,” said Ingall. “And six-thirty is ‘listen.’ People need to be heard, and not jumped over. Let the person who was hurt have their say.”

Ingall said saying the word “sorry” may seem obvious, but it didn’t always happen. Instead, people say things as if they are “sorry,” and that is not the same thing.

“Regret is about how I feel,” Ingall said. “We’re all sorry. ‘Sorry’ is about how the other person feels. And when you apologize, you have to keep the other person’s feelings in mind.”

Then there are the words no I say during an apology.

Ingall points out words like “obviously” (“If it was obvious, you wouldn’t have to say it”) and “already” (“‘already apologized’ is something we hear a lot”), and qualifiers like “sorry if…” and “sorry but…” and “I didn’t want to.”

“Intent is far less important than impact when it comes to apologies,” Ingall said.

McCarthy adds that a bad apology can even make matters worse.

“It’s like the cover-up is worse than a crime, if you make an apology that says, you know, ‘You shouldn’t even have a white sofa,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t have been standing there,’ ” she said.

On the other hand, a big apology – even a late one – can have tremendous healing power, say the authors.

“I received a letter years after a breakup from a boyfriend,” McCarthy said. “And he just said, ‘I wanted you to know that I’m going to get married.’ And I am aware that I have often not been a good boyfriend. And I want you to know that I’ve been listening, even when it doesn’t seem like I’ve been listening. And I will be a better man because of our relationship.”

McCarthy said there was no return address on the letter, which made it feel more meaningful since there was no expectation of a response.

“I still had some sad and angry feelings about that relationship, and it felt so healing,” she said. “And I felt like it was good for my relationships moving forward as well. I mean, a good apology is a really, really powerful thing.”

“I think in some ways we still don’t even understand.”

Mallory Yu edited the radio interview.

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