It’s not always easy to apologize. When we hurt someone, we may be loath to acknowledge our transgression because it makes us feel guilty, conflicts with our beliefs about being a good person, or means accepting that we are imperfect human beings. We may want to excuse our behavior and blame the other person, minimizing our role in hurting them.
How can we be better at apologizing and so promote better relationships? One new study suggests that practicing mindfulness could help.
In the study, researchers asked 120 undergraduate students to recall a time when they’d offended or hurt someone else (a friend, family member, colleague, or romantic partner) and the conflict remained unresolved. Then, participants were randomly assigned to either a 15-minute guided mindfulness exercise focusing on their breath or a guided mind-wandering exercise, where they were encouraged to let their minds wander.
Afterward, they were asked to report how much they felt like apologizing to the person versus not apologizing or offering excuses or rationales for their behavior. Then, they were asked to craft a note to the person, without instructions to apologize or not.
In analyzing the notes, the researchers found that people who practiced mindfulness were more likely to apologize than those who mind-wandered—meaning, they were more likely to include statements like “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” in their notes. They also had a stronger motivation to apologize, as measured by their survey responses.
Lead author Sana Rizvi says this suggests that mindfulness could help people apologize more.
“One way in which we can foster apologies is by having people think in the present moment,” she says. “We can teach individuals to be mindful of their present states, and it can be done as little as in 15 minutes.”
Why might this be the case? Rizvi isn’t sure, as there has been very little research on how being more mindful might affect us when we hurt others. Prior research has found that being more mindful helps victims of transgressions to be more forgiving, she says, and it seems to improve relationships, generally.
As one possibility, she points to the work of Eric Garland of the University of Utah, showing that being mindful helps us not be so reactive to negative circumstances, which allows us to be more open to positive, relationship-enhancing feelings and thoughts—in other words, to have better “emotional regulation.” She and her team wondered if something similar might be happening in her study.
To help figure that out, she recruited participants from the community outside of the university and surveyed them on how mindful they are, in general, as well as how much they tend to apologize when they offend someone. The participants were also asked to recall a time they’d hurt another person and to write about what had happened.
Afterward, they reported on how much they wanted to justify their behavior (how much they agreed with statements like, “It’s OK to show my anger even if there is a risk of rising hostility,” or “It’s not necessary to control myself to prevent the conflict from escalating”) versus how concerned they were about preserving their relationship (agreeing that “It’s better to not show my anger rather than to risk the rise of hostility,” or “Cooperation with this person still must be maintained during this conflict”). They also indicated how motivated they were to apologize in this situation.
After analyzing the results, Rizvi found that people high in mindfulness tended to have a lower need to justify themselves or let their negative emotions run free and, in turn, had more concern and care for others—a pattern that seemed to increase their motivation to apologize.
“When mindfulness reduces negative states, it seems to increase positive states, too, and that then leads to apologizing,” she says. “It seems there has to be a shift from negativity to positivity.”
Overall, her results suggest that being more mindful may increase our motivation to apologize. This may happen because mindfulness makes us feel less defensive and, therefore, helps us consider the importance of the other person in the conflict more, as her study suggests. Or there could be some other reason that was not considered in her study. More research needs to be done, says Rizvi, before they will totally understand what’s going on.
On the other hand, it’s encouraging to think that teaching simple mindfulness techniques (like focused breathing) could increase apologies, especially in places that are often rife with interpersonal conflict, like workplaces or other organizations. Perhaps, encouraging people to slow down and pay attention to the present moment could improve interpersonal interactions, helping people move forward more easily from a place of conflict to understanding and forgiveness.
“I hope that, with our journal article, we are able to convince people that mindfulness ought to be considered when looking at ways to manage and resolve transgressions,” she says. “Getting offenders to apologize by focusing on the present moment, we can really reap the benefit associated with apologizing, allowing individuals to have more benevolent interactions with one another.”