Science confirms two contradictory truths--sincere apologies are important for healthy, long-lasting relationships, and yet people really, really don't like apologizing.
It's not hard to understand the first truth. Simmering resentments obviously won't do your relationships any good. The second reality comes down to how deeply people are motivated to maintain a positive self-image. Saying you're sorry means seeing yourself in an unflattering light and admitting you're not as great a person as you hope to be. No wonder people tend to avoid it. Put these two together and it's also no wonder half-apologies and defensive explaining often replace a sincere "I'm sorry."
So is there any way out of this conundrum, a technique that allows for people's self-protective impulses but still helps them wholeheartedly admit errors and soothe hurt feelings? Stanford psychologist Karina Schumann thinks she may have found one with her latest research. The trick, she found, is to engage in a little self-affirmation before you screw up the courage to apologize.
The study divided 98 participants into two groups. Half were asked to reflect on a value that was important to them and they felt they possessed. The other half were the control group. Both groups were then asked to recall a time they hadn't apologized for a wrong they had committed and asked to write down what, upon further reflection, they would say now to the party they hurt. Those who had engaged in the self-affirmation exercise wrote better apologies with less hedging, blaming, and dodging of responsibility.
"I aimed to discover a method for increasing apology comprehensiveness and reducing the use of defensive strategies. Because I reasoned that feelings of threat pose a barrier to transgressors' willingness to offer comprehensive apologies, I examined whether self-affirmation could buffer against this threat and consequently promote more effective apologies," Schumann explains on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology blog.
Or, to put it in less academic language, reminding yourself of your good qualities and what you're proud of in yourself before facing those you've wronged will probably help you summon up the courage to truly apologize.
"So the next time you offend someone, take a moment to remind yourself of what matters in your life, then try your hand at offering a nondefensive, heartfelt apology. It can be challenging, but it might feel better than you think," Schumann concludes.