A Trick That Will Make Your Next Apology Better

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 15 -- Pictured: Al Franken during the 'Daily Affirmation' skit on March 16, 1991 (Photo by Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Photo: Alan Singer/NBC/Getty Images

You know that the only thing worse than getting hurt by someone you trust is when it’s followed by a lame apology of the “I’m sorry you’re mad” variety. But you also know, being a human who has screwed up at some point, how hard it is to muster up a sincere apology. Karina Schumann, a Stanford University psychologist, just published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which she describes what she believes is the key to making apologies less unpleasant for all parties involved.

It involves the 1990s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley. Kind of.

The basic idea is that we are highly motivated to maintain a positive image of ourselves — an image of self-integrity, morality, and adequacy,” Schumann said in an email. And this, she reasons, is why apologizing can suck so very much: Having to admit that our words or actions hurt someone else threatens our image of our ideal self. So it makes sense that so many apologies are so bad. We get defensive, so we justify our behavior, all to protect our egos.

Research has shown that refusing to admit you were wrong feels pretty great in the moment, because you get to maintain that idealized picture of yourself. But an unresolved conflict can poison a relationship; in the workplace, it can even drive people to quit their jobs. Decades of social-psychology research confirm the basic human truth your mom taught you: If you messed up, you have to apologize.

Back to Stuart Smalley. Research has shown that one way to keep that idealized self-image intact is through self-affirmation, a concept that actually isn’t too far off from Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” mantra. A less ridiculous way to go about this is to think about your goals, your values, and the things and people most important to you, Schumann said. So she reasoned that before apologizing, taking a few minutes to indulge in a little self-affirmation could make the experience less painful, which would ultimately lead to a less defensive, more effective apology.

Schumann demonstrated this by instructing 98 adults to take a survey ranking their values and personal qualities. She asked some of them to write briefly about why their highest ranked value was important to them — a form of self-affirmation. Then she told them to think of a time when they’d done something to hurt someone else but hadn’t apologized for it, and what they would say if they were going to apologize. Sure enough, the people who’d reflected on their values wrote better, less defensive apologies.

So if you wanted to use this strategy in real life, what, specifically, should you say to yourself before apologizing? Schumann offers some guidance:

Self-affirmations are specific to the person because the value/domain being affirmed needs to be relevant and meaningful to the self. But before responding, you could reflect on something else that really matters to you in life — perhaps that is your job, your kids, your health, your creative hobbies, your group identity. By thinking about these other sources of self-worth and meaning in your life, you might feel less defensive about your behavior and more willing to respond in a way that will repair the damage done to your relationship with the person you offended.

But what exactly makes a good apology? According to Schumann’s paper, there are eight notes you have to hit:  

1. You actually have to use the words I’m sorry.
2. Acknowledge that you messed up. (As in, “I take full responsibility for my words.”)
3. Tell the person how you’ll fix the situation.
4. Describe what happened, but without foisting the blame off on someone else.
5. Promise to behave better next time.
6. Make sure the person knows you know exactly how you hurt or inconvenienced them.
7. Much like the first rule, it’s important to use some version of the phrase “I was wrong.”
8. Ask for forgiveness.

Bad apologies, on the other hand, tend to suffer from these four shortcomings:

1. Justifying your words or behavior.
2. Blaming the victim.
3. Making excuses.
4. Minimizing the consequences. (“It was just a joke!”)

Apologizing is never going to be fun. But the experience doesn’t have to be terrible.