A Surefire Way to Repair a Damaged Relationship
New research on the empathy-apology connection.
Posted December 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- A hurtful or insensitive comment can create a chain of events resulting in a damaged relationship.
- New research on apologies suggests the key ingredient to restoring harmony is the ability to empathize with the person you've offended.
- A simple exercise can give you the empathy you need to make your apology sincere and get things back on track.
People in relationships invariably behave in ways that can hurt each other, whether intentionally or not. When the damage is unintentional, the chances are that people are motivated to patch things up but often may not know how to do so.
Perhaps your partner bought you a thoughtfully chosen gift that they thought would be exactly to your liking. However, much to your partner’s dismay, when you opened it, your face apparently communicated disappointment. Hurt by your lack of appreciation for their effort, your partner shuts down, and you’re worried that the episode could have long-lasting ramifications.
Is there a way to rectify the damage? According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Karina Schumann and Anna Dragotta (2021), it’s important to try. In their words, “Although common, offenses that are left unresolved can poison people’s valued relationships.” Not only do these offenses spoil the relationship at the heart of the dispute, but they can spread to the larger social networks of each person, ultimately “severely undermining the wellbeing of those involved.”
Clearly, you need to find a way back to your partner and prevent these negative outcomes. The University of Pittsburgh authors noted that decades of research on reconciliation support the importance of issuing authentic and comprehensive apologies that can ultimately lead to forgiveness by the offended person.
Empathy as the Key to Successful Apologies
How can you produce such an effective apology? Schumann and Dragotta proposed that you need to start by being able to empathize with the person you’ve offended. Defining empathy as “the capacity to understand and share others’ perspectives and emotional states,” the authors noted that this ideal state might be challenging for you to experience in these situations because it’s so hard to admit that you’re in the wrong.
You think of yourself as a caring and thoughtful person who wouldn’t hurt someone else, much less your partner. Sadly, it’s exactly when you have hurt someone else that you’re least likely to want to admit it. It’s possible that you’re typically already quite high in empathy, or what the authors regard as “trait” empathy. This should theoretically make it easier for you to drive over the speedbump of your own self-protective tendencies.
However, there’s a difference between trait and “state” empathy, or your feelings of empathy at the moment. From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter which type of empathy you manage to engage, though, as long as you can enter into an empathic mindset.
An apology based on empathy, then, begins with the ability to feel what the offended person is feeling, casting aside your wish to see yourself as the one who was in the right. In the case of the ill-fated gift, you would conjure up memories of a situation in which you gave a gift to someone who showed a similarly ungrateful response.
For example, you might have a relative who’s difficult to please. To prepare for their upcoming birthday, you spend weeks hunting until you find an expensive shirt that should produce an effusive thank you. Instead, this relative says nothing while holding the shirt, scowling while conducting a thorough inspection of its label. There's no "thank you," even for your effort, and they complete the offensive behavior by saying that it might be something their wife would like to have.
How did this make you feel? Activating your memories and emotions associated with this event should help you become a little more sympathetic to your partner’s plight. Theoretically, if empathy is the key to being forgiven, this should help you produce a heartfelt apology for your own reaction to your partner’s generosity.
Yet, as Schumann and Dragotta pointed out, evidence from the literature on the empathy-apology connection isn’t all that strong. In order to delve into this potential relationship, the authors devised a series of studies to further the understanding of this important link.
Testing the Empathy-Apology Connection
Across a series of three studies, the University of Pittsburgh team explored the predicted relationship between state (vs. trait) empathy and the quality of apologies. The first two studies established that the best apologies came from participants who reported high levels of state empathy toward both a romantic partner (Study 1) and a friend (Study 2).
The nearly 450 online adult participants in these two studies simply reported on their apologies which the research team rated in terms of comprehensiveness and lack of defensiveness. Still, in the third study, Schumann and Dragotta employed a design in which they manipulated levels of empathy through experimental simulation.
For this third study, 251 adults were recruited from an online data site. Their average age was 36, 78 percent were white/Caucasian, and they were nearly equally split by gender. They were instructed to recall a time they offended someone and provide basic information about them.
A research assistant rated the category of offense, such as criticism, betrayal, misunderstanding, and failed obligation, categories used in the previous two studies. Participants assigned to the high empathy condition received additional instructions that they should imagine how the hurt party felt; those in the low empathy condition received instructions, instead, to describe the event in as objective a manner as possible. Participants in the control condition received no additional instructions other than to describe the offense.
For the apology portion of the study, participants were instructed, in line with their experimental condition, to either remember to put themselves in the place of the hurt party (high empathy) or not (low empathy or control) and then to write down what they would say in an email in order to apologize.
All participants completed an 11-item empathy measure assessing how they felt while writing their apology. Undergraduate research assistants rated the comprehensiveness and defensiveness of the apologies.
Turning to the results, Study 3 confirmed the previous two studies showing that, across a range of relationships and under explicit instructions to experience empathy or not, participants higher in empathy while writing their apologies were more thorough and sincere. An “empathy pathway” in the statistical findings supports the theory that being stimulated to feel empathy toward the victim of your offense can help you develop a higher quality apology.
How to Offer an Apology That Will Work
The first conclusion you can draw from the University of Pittsburgh study is that the best way to make sure your apology works is to put yourself directly into the place of the person you offended.
The specific instructions in the high empathy condition of Study 3 can provide a guide (“RD” in this case, is the hypothetical offended party):
When thinking about what you would say, we would again like you to try to focus on how RD feels about the event. Try to put yourself in RD’s shoes, imagining how this event has affected RD and how he or she feels as a result.
This is a pretty simple exercise, only requiring you to pause and reflect on the other person’s inner state.
Next, looking at the qualities included in ratings of state empathy in these studies here is a range of emotions you can try to generate: warm, compassionate, softhearted, and concerned. See if you can come up with these feelings.
Finally, see if your apology covers the full range of qualities that will make it comprehensive using these criteria: remorse, accepting responsibility, admitting wrongdoing, requesting forgiveness, desire for repair, and acknowledging harm.
Here is one such example from Study 1: “I am so sorry I said your dress was ugly.” This apology, though brief, checks off the remorse and responsibility boxes. For a close romantic partner, you could also add an element from another apology the authors report: “I love you very much, and I hope things get better.”
As you can see, the ability to come up with a good apology doesn’t have to be a part of the fabric of your personality. By invoking your sense of empathy at the moment, you can accomplish the same effect of having your apology hit home. Indeed, in Study 1, the researchers stated that empathy trumped trait empathy in predicting an apology’s comprehensiveness.
To sum up, when you’ve unwittingly hurt someone, it’s easy to fall into a slump and figure there’s no way out of it. The University of Pittsburgh researchers' findings show that, instead, a simple thought and feeling experiment in which you swap places with the other person can put you back on a path toward reparation and greater fulfillment for you both.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Schumann, K., & Dragotta, A. (2021). Empathy as a predictor of high‐quality interpersonal apologies. European Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi-org/10.1002/ejsp.2786