Karina Schumann smiling in front of white background
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Difficult Conversations: So you messed up. Here's how to apologize.

  • Health and Wellness
  • Faculty
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Karina Schumann says apologies are the superglue of life.

Schumann, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and director of the Conflict Resolution Lab, studies how apologies help people reconcile interpersonal conflicts.

She notes we apologize every day, sometimes as a means of maintaining social harmony, such as apologizing for stepping in front of a stranger in a grocery store aisle, and sometimes with more thought and intention, such as apologies we deliver to those closest to us.

Whether you’ve totaled your partner’s car or forgotten to bring home milk after work, Schumann shares her tips for making amends and strengthening relationships. 

How can giving meaningful apologies impact our relationships?

We think of forgiveness as the holy grail of conflict outcomes. When it comes to fixing something you've done wrong, an apology is certainly a very strong first step to take to initiate the forgiveness process.

There was a meta-analysis where scholars looked at many studies and found that the strongest predictor of forgiveness was whether an apology had been offered or not. Apologies influenced forgiveness more strongly than a variety of other factors, such as the severity of the offense, the victim’s general tendency to forgive or how close the relationship was between the apologizer and the victim.

What are the elements of a meaningful apology?

The quality of an apology is important. It will be effective to the extent that the apology is perceived as sincere by the victim, and you can communicate sincerity in a variety of ways.

One of the ways is by being comprehensive in how you apologize. A strong apology does not make justifications for the behavior the person is apologizing for and does not blame the victim. The person offering the apology does not excuse their behavior.

[If you need to break bad news alongside your apology, read palliative care doctor Bob Arnold’s advice on broaching the subject.]

Essentially, apologies need to be non-defensive and include important statements, such as an acceptance of responsibility, an acknowledgment of the harm caused to the victim or a commitment to changing or stopping the offending behavior.

Why are apologies from politicians and celebrities notoriously ineffectual?

Just the fact that the apologies are being made publicly makes people assume that they are being offered for strategic reasons as opposed to sincere reasons. The thought is that these public figures were pressured into it, and they have ulterior motives.

Often these kinds of apologies are issued via Twitter or YouTube or an official press conference, and those platforms aren’t conducive to helping people’s apologies come off as sincere.

Research shows that because public apologies are so commonplace, their effectiveness is impacted by normative dilution — in other words, because these apologies are so frequent, their value is diminished. To come across as meaningful, the quality of public apologies must meet a higher bar than an interpersonal apology.

Are some people better at apologizing than others?

In my work, I have found that the higher you are in intellectual humility — that is, the more you are willing to learn about different perspectives and grapple with the possibility that your knowledge may be fallible or limited — the more likely you are to offer a higher quality apology.

Read more advice from Schumann in Psychology Today, BBC and The New York Times.


— Nichole Faina