Find Your Six Ways to Sorry

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

“Love” may mean, “Never having to say your sorry,” but litigation does not mean that. In some defense cases, sure, what’s needed is an all-out answer that denies everything the plaintiff is saying. But in other cases, there might be something to apologize for. Consider, for example, a large corporation’s CEO wanting to acknowledge a pattern of sexual harassment complaints that was allowed to persist for too long. In that situation, the single “sorry” is unlikely to cut it.

I’ve previously written, drawing from the research of my colleague Dr. Kevin Boully, that an apology requires four steps. Those steps, the “four R’s,” are Responsibility (I did it), Remorse (I feel bad about it), Repair (I’ll fix it), and Reform (I’ll change so it doesn’t happen again). But based on a news release from the Association for Psychological Science, the research suggests that there are actually six steps that matter to the apology’s chances of getting reception. The two added elements are an explanation of what went wrong, and a request for forgiveness aimed at those who were harmed. So the CEO including all six would be saying: 

We made a mistake [responsibility], and it continued for too long because our policies were inadequate We deeply regret that [remorse] and we are beginning the process of finding ways to win back the respect of those who were harmed [forgiveness]. Part of that process is to seek to fix those past mistakes [repair] and part of that is to change the policies and the culture so that it doesn’t happen again [reform].

In this post, I will share four implications of these six components.

There Are More Elements Than we Thought

The online study (Lewicki, Polin, & Lount, 2016) involved 333 adult participants who were exposed to a scenario in which the manager of an accounting department is interviewing an applicant who needs to admit to a prior mistake. The descriptions were varied such that the apology contained either one, three, or all six of the different apology components identified above. Then, the participants rated the effectiveness of the apology on a five-point scale. The researchers found that all six components mattered to acceptance of the apology. It is also worth considering that, in the specific context of your own case story, there may also be other unique factors that end up making a difference.

More Elements Mean Better Apology,

The study results also showed that more complete apologies tended to fare better. As the release summarized, “If you’ve really messed up, you’ll do best if you use as many of these six components as possible in your apology.” So, instead of equating an apology with just a single component (i.e., saying “We are sorry”), it is critical to consider how comprehensive you can be in the context of your own case situation. While litigation may constrain some components (e.g., a bar on discussing subsequent remedial measures may limit the ability to talk about your repair and reform efforts), but it is still the case that the more thorough you are able to be, the more effective the apology will be.

There are a ‘Big Three’ Among the Elements

The research also showed that there are three elements that matter more than the other three, based on their contribution to the overall effectiveness of the apology. Those elements are:

  • Acknowledging responsibility
  • Explaining what happened
  • And showing a commitment to repair

If You Include Only One Element, Make it Acknowledgment of Responsibility 

Finally, there was a single winner among the three. Lead author Roy Lewicki of The Ohio State University explained,  “Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.” That might sound obvious, but there are common forms of non-apology or partial apology that would omit this step. For example, if our CEO had simply said, “I am sorry that some women misinterpreted these communications,” or that, “The company has always made it a top priority to stop harassment,” then they’re really denying, rather than acknowledging responsibility. Based on the research, it appears that if the mea culpa is not present, then it might be an argument, or an explanation, or a defense…but it isn’t an apology.


Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. B. (2016). An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research9(2), 177-196. doi: 10.1111/ncmr.12073

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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