It Ain’t Easy To Say “I am Sorry”

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

There are right ways and wrong ways to say “I am sorry”. Most of us have figured out the wrong ways… by accident. We try to apologize only to have it blow up in our faces because we continue on by trying to justify or excuse what we just did or failed to do. We say more than just “I am sorry” and find that we have only made matters worse.

Now, a study has been published in the May 2016 issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research (Volume 9, issue 2) explaining how to apologize effectively. Entitled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies”, researchers Roy Lewicki, Beth Polin and Robert Lount discuss the six elements necessary for an effective apology. After presenting fictional apologies to 755 research participants, they found the following are necessary though not in equal measure:

Expression of regret,

Explanation of what went wrong;

Acknowledgement of responsibility;

Declaration of repentance;

Offer of repair; and

Request for forgiveness.

(“More on the science of apology” (posted April 15, 2016 on (“Sorrywatch”)

Of these elements, the researchers found that the most important is Acknowledgement of responsibility. That is, taking ownership of the mistake and not trying to avoid doing so by making excuses or coming up with extenuating circumstances. In other words, to simply and only say “I am sorry” or “it’s my fault” without any attempt to then downplay it. (Id.)

The second most important element is the Offer to repair; that is, to “right the wrong” or “try to make things right”. (Id.) An example given by the researchers is offering to pay for the dry cleaning of an article of clothing that you have just spilled coffee et cetera all over or if the mistake in an intangible one or one that could happen again, promising that you will make absolutely sure it will not happen again. (Id.)  (“I promise to be much more careful in the future”.) (Id.)

Three of the elements came in third in importance: Expression of regret, Explanation of what went wrong; and Declaration of repentance. (Id.) As mentioned earlier, trying to explain what or why something happened often worsens the situation as it sounds like an excuse or an attempt to avoid responsibility for or ownership of the mistake. Justification seems only to make matters worse, not better.  (Id.)

The researchers found that Asking for forgiveness is at the bottom of the list in terms of importance, which to the researchers is a good thing as asking to be forgiven places the person wronged in the tough and embarrassing spot of having to agree to forgive or not forgive. (Id.)

Notably, the researchers found a difference in mistakes made due to incompetence and mistakes made due to a lack of integrity. They found that the participants in their study were “… much more likely to forgive the person who acted out of ignorance than out of calculation.” (Id.)

The full study may be found at:

Needless to say, apologies have a lot to do with conflict resolution and resolving disputes. Often in mediations, there is discussion of whether one party should apologize to another and if so, to whom should it be made, how it should be made (Orally”? In writing? Privately? Publicly?”) and what should it contain. Thus, this research will be quite useful in structuring an apology that does not backfire but rather is effective in what it is supposed to do; healing the wounds and moving on towards the future.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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