The Better Way to Say 'I'm Sorry'
by Deborah R. Glasofer, PhD and Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
The 3 Types of Poor Apologies
Consider this scenario:
Jake has an important business dinner with his boss and potential new clients. Everyone will attend with a spouse or partner, if they have one. He has asked his wife, Lucy, to join him. He stressed to her that everything must go well because he and his boss have a lot riding on this potential new business. Lucy arrives to the dinner 45 minutes late.In general, there are three types of misguided apologies:
- The Over-Apology. Lucy would be an
over-apologizer if she was not at fault for her lateness but
nevertheless proceeded to apologize profusely. Perhaps she had been
given the wrong time or location for the dinner. Maybe she was late due
to circumstances outside of her control such as a stalled train or a
traffic accident. When a simple explanation and apology would suffice,
the over-apologizer overdoes it by repeatedly apologizing during and
after the event.
- The Under-Apology. Had Lucy lost track of time and
stayed at work later than she intended, not giving herself enough time
to get to the dinner, she would have cooked her own goose. A substantive
apology would be in order. If she had not delivered it, she would be an
under-apologizer. Perhaps Lucy cannot quite see why she owes an
apology. Maybe she doesn't offer one because of her preoccupation with
herself—or her fear that Jake will not forgive her. The motives may be different but the result is the same.
- The Can’t-Get-It-Right Apology. Maybe Lucy, after staying late at work, knows she owes an apology, but cannot find the right words. She might be defensive (“I’m sorry I was late, but my work is important, too”) or blame Jake (“I’m sorry, I was only late this once and you are always late.”) The can’t-get-it-right apologizer’s apology is sadly apt to escalate a conflict before a resolution can be reached.
Maybe we are one type in one situation, but a different type at other times, depending on the circumstances or who else is involved? Knowing what type of apologizer you tend to be, and under what circumstances, can help you turn anger and shame into understanding and empathy. When that happens, affection warms the moment and the relationship can get back on track.
The Science of "Sorry"
Apology is an art. It is also a science. How does a successful apology work? What do we know?
We know that, in many cases, any apology is better than no apology when it comes to improving what your partner thinks of you and your relationship. In one linguistic analysis (link is external) of the different elements of an apology, people were asked to read a story in which a character apologized using either some or all of the following—expressing remorse, taking responsibility, promising to keep their word in the future, and/or offering to repair the situation. The more of these elements present in the apology, the more effective it was rated to be. A good apology includes remorse, whether explicitly expressed or not. Successful apologies also leave people thinking well of the apologizer (as compared to a non-apologizer), regarding them as genuine and conscientious.
Apologies may promote forgiveness through a combination of biological and psychological processes. In an imaging study of forgiveness (link is external), participants were asked to respond to another person’s decisions while undergoing a functional brain scan (fMRI). When a person receives an apology, researchers could observe, there is increased activity in the left brain, in a neural circuit involving the frontal, temporal, and parietal regions—the same areas shown to be involved with empathy. Empathy is being able to put ourselves into another person’s shoes, to see the world as they do. Perhaps there is a link between apology and forgiveness through empathy.
We also know that forgiveness, especially in long-term intimate relationships, promotes psychological (link is external) and physical (link is external) well-being. Cognitive neuroscience has shown that when people forgive someone, their memories of the "offense" are more likely to be forgotten (link is external). This happens when we intentionally decide to let something fade from our mind. Thus, perhaps, the popular expression, “Forgive and forget."
Dr. Glasofer is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health. He is the author of the Psychology Today blog, "Therapy, It's More Than Just Talk" and of askdrlloyd.com (link is external).