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The art of making an effective apology

Washington Post examines the science behind saying sorry

September 30, 2011

Getting someone to accept your apology may rely more on perception rather than your sincerity when saying sorry, the Washington Post reported this week.

Examing the art of crafting a well-received "sorry," the Post spoke with Peter Kim—an associate professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California (USC)—who terms apologies a "double-edged sword": they show an effort to repair a problem, but also confirm that blame is deserved.

Although many individuals believe that direct, explicit, and sincere apologies generally are well received, USC research indicates that people weigh various factors when considering forgiveness.

For example, an apology's effectiveness may depend on whether the offense is believed to be intentional, Kim writes. People are more likely to forgive an unintentional action because they tend to believe that the person will correct the cause of the problem.

According to Kim, the distinction between an act being intentional or a mistake "is important because many offenses can be construed either way, and would-be apologizers often fail to account for people's perception before they respond" (Kim, "On Leadership," Post,  9/28).

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