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The perfect apology, according to science

The gold standard includes six components, though some are more important than others, according to researchers.

Blasius Erlinger/Corbis

Ever had an apology fall flat? Well, there may be a logical explanation. You may not have given enough emphasis to the most important elements, or you may have even left them out altogether.

According to new research from a team led by Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at Ohio State University, the best apologies consist of six parts:

  1. Expression of regret.
  2. Explanation of what went wrong.
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility.
  4. Declaration of repentance.
  5. Offer of repair.
  6. Request for forgiveness.

The apology that resonates best, based on a survey of 755 people offered apologies with some or all the elements, includes all six parts. The results were published last week in the Negotiation and Conflict Management Research journal.

The parts that carry the most weight are the acknowledgment of responsibility and the offer of repair, according to the study. They mean the most to the person you're offering the apology to.

"Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake," Lewicki said Tuesday in a statement.

He added, "One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage."

The study participants were split into two groups and tasked with reading an apology statement offered by an accounting job applicant who had been found filing an incorrect tax return. The first group was told how many elements the apology contained, the second was not.

Overall, it made little difference whether the elements were specifically pointed out. Apologies that contained all six elements went over the best, and both groups felt that the request for forgiveness was the least important component.

What the study didn't test was the power of a face-to-face apology over a written one, although Lewicki believes that an apology is likely to be more effective delivered in person. "Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology," he said.

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