In any relationship, there is bound to be conflict. Even the closest of friends can have a difference of opinion now and then, and when the stakes are higher — such as in a business environment when co-workers are competing for recognition and promotions — those conflicts can be brought on by even the smallest perceived offense.
However, while conflict is inevitable, it can also be destructive. A ruptured relationship can influence other relationships and even your ability to do your job. But since avoiding conflict is not always possible — or even desirable — it’s important to have the necessary skills to repair broken relationships. And the most important skill? The ability to apologize.
The Art of the Apology
Most of us learn to apologize at a young age. Children as young as two are taught that when they do something that causes harm to someone else, they need to say they are sorry.
However, as we get older, expressing a sincere apology can become more difficult. As relationships become more complex, and the stakes get higher, you might be reluctant to take the blame in certain situations as it could become costly. Think about it: When you’re in an auto accident, your insurance carrier very clearly states that you should not apologize to the other driver as doing so is tantamount to admitting responsibility and will put you on the hook for damages.
Yet, admitting responsibility and asking for forgiveness can go a long way toward ending conflict and repairing relationships. While in the past, research in the field of conflict resolution has focused on whether or not apologies played a role in successful dispute resolutions, researchers focused on the study of conflict resolution have recently started focusing on what actually makes apologies effective. In short, for an apology to be considered sincere and spark the healing process, it needs to meet several key criteria.
Elements of an Effective Apology
Once you have determined that an apology is an order, you want it to be well-received and sincere. Offering a half-hearted “Sorry you feel that way” or “Sorry I messed up,” might make you feel better in the short term, but it’s probably not going to go very far toward repairing a damaged relationship.
In order for an apology to be truly effective, and show the recipient that you are committed to mitigating the damage, it needs to meet four criteria:
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and express regret. Without acknowledging what you have done and why it was hurtful, it’s difficult for the recipient to know whether you truly understand why your actions caused harm, or if you’re simply apologizing because you want to appease them. To do this effectively, you need to listen to the aggrieved party and their concerns and express understanding and regret for causing those feelings.
- Include a clear “I’m sorry” statement. One reason that many apologies fall on deaf ears or aren’t accepted is that the apologizer never actually says that he or she is sorry. Statements like “I behaved inappropriately” or “We made a mistake” acknowledge responsibility, but without expressly saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” the apology is not complete.
- Ask for forgiveness. Quite simply, you need to ask the other person to forgive you for your offense. Do not assume that it will be granted simply because you admit to wrongdoing.
- Include a situational component. Depending on the circumstances of the offense, your apology should offer compensation, offer empathy or acknowledge how you violated social norms. For example, if you offend a co-worker by failing to give her credit for her work on a project, offering compensation in the form of a promise to correct the oversight with a department-wide email or statement at the next meeting can help show that you’re sincere about your apology and want to correct your offense.
Avoid the “Non-Apology” Apology
Within today’s high stakes world, many public figures and business people fail to understand how to apologize effectively, and as a result issue “non-apology” apologies. In most cases, these statements are designed to deflect blame (or potential legal and financial consequences), but they leave the recipient feeling unvalued and do not repair the relationship. These statements often put the responsibility back in the injured party, by focusing on how they felt instead of what the apologizer did.
To effectively solve conflicts, avoid non-apologies and instead focus on your own role in the conflict. By incorporating the key components of an effective apology and focusing on how you can repair the relationship with the other party, you’ll begin to rebuild trust and move toward a healthy, functional relationship.
About the Author: Rachel Berwick works in alternative dispute resolution.