How to Say Sorry

Different ways of saying sorry?

Body Language Myth: The 55% 38% 7% Rule

I noticed that a search term that’s leading people to my blog – ‘how to say sorry with body language‘. Why not just ‘how to say sorry?

There is a suggestion – in this phrase – that saying ‘sorry with body language’ is different to ‘saying sorry with words’. Arguably this is perpetuated by the common body language myth that non-verbal signals are more important than words. It’s not true. The ‘words account for 7% of all communications’ myth is based on a distortion of the original research. So before considering the links between words and body language, let’s consider one of the most famous apologies in history.

Saying ‘sorry’ builds relationships, trust and esteem

Saying ‘sorry’ has a lot of benefits. Recognizing that you’ve made a mistake and quickly apologize for it can have the effect of boosting trust. People often use the phrase ‘that it takes guts to say sorry’. Apologizing can preserve and boost our self-esteem and our standing in the eyes of others, so it’s important to get it right. If you doubt this the recall one of the most famous apologies in history. Consider the unsuccessful ‘Bay of Pigs’ Invasion of Cuba by the USA in 1961. To put it mildly, the whole incident embarrassed the Kennedy administration. However, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco President Kennedy’s approval ratings increased substantially, leading to his comment ‘I hope I don’t have to keep doing stupid things like that to remain popular’.

There have been many public apologies by celebrities over a range of misdemeanors. As a rule the most successful apologies are where people appear genuine. A sign of this is that is a match between verbal and non-verbal aspects of the message. I say ‘appear genuine’ because we have no way of really knowing if someone is being genuine. Mostly it’s gut reaction. It’s only after the fact that ‘body language experts’ point out what everyone sensed anyway.

How to know if someone is genuinely sorry?

The phrase ‘how to say sorry with body language’ does imply that words may not be enough. The body language needs to act as a ‘convincer’. Being genuine is far easier than appearing genuine. If there is clash between verbal and non-verbal signals then the non-verbals (tone of voice and body language)

We do not need any special training to detect deceit. We process the ‘message’ both at a conscious level but also at a ‘gut reaction’ level. A mismatch between the verbal and non-verbal aspect of the messages triggers alarm signals that ‘something is not quite right. So, trying to emphasize an apology with the supposedly ‘right’ body language may end up backfiring, even if we are genuine. Disingenuousness will ‘leak out’. The best approach is to focus on the apology and letting the body language ‘take care of itself’. If you are being open then your body language will match. You will be using open gestures. You will also be taking a ‘one-down’ position. It’s not an apology if you’re towering over someone waving your hands and spit out the words or if you don’t make eye contact and have your arms folded and mumble. Open hands, palms up, nothing to hide!

Key parts of an apology

The first step is recognizing what you are apologizing for. Clearly identifying the behaviours that ‘wronged’ the other party is the first step. Next is to communicate that you understand how the other person felt. It’s basic empathy, that is, to ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes’. Including reference to how the other person’s feelings gives further indication that you understand the repercussions. It’s possible that the ‘injured party’ might want to fill in a bit more detail. Let them. Listen.

You may wish to add a reason but don’t make lots of excuses. Keep it short. Planning an apology offers you the opportunity to think about what really is important. When choosing the words, don’t think it needs to sound like a piece of Shakespeare. It can be short and simple.

When apologizing, don’t play with words

When people want to appear to apologize but still retain the upper hand they have a tendency to ‘play with words’. In one my first jobs there was a supervisor who seemed to be constantly on a quest for one-upmanship. Instead of saying ‘I agree’ he would say ‘I wouldn’t disagree with you’. Phrases like ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ or ‘I’m sorry you have interpreted my words that way’ are not true apologies.

Focus on what you are sorry for. So for instance you may say ‘I’m sorry that my words hurt you’. You can then clarify that it was not your intention. Sometimes words don’t come out exactly as we had intended. Sometimes there are misunderstandings. Just focus on your part in the misunderstanding rather than your first thought being ‘how can I shift the blame?’

Sometimes an apology is not enough

Finally be prepared that the other person may not accept your apology. However, if it’s heartfelt and you’ve tried your best then give the other person some time to process it. It may take a while. It doesn’t mean that you have to keep apologizing for the rest of your life. Sometimes people have a greater need to hold on to the hurt rather than move on. Sometimes an apology is not enough. For some people an apology will never be enough. That’s their right and their responsibility and that doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for it. Be genuine, make your apology, learn from your mistakes and then move on.

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Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule.

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When we communicate we use words, the tone of voice and body language to get our message across and no doubt you have read about the 7:38:55 % Rule. ‘Popular sources’ state that these figures relate to the relative importance of the components of any message we communicate and receive:

  • 7% relates to the importance of the words we use
  • 38% refers to the tone of voice and inflexion
  • 55% refers to the importance of body language/face.

That’s amazing. Except that it’s not true. This is not what the original research by Albert Mehrabian concluded.

Body Language Myth: The 55% 38% 7% Rule

The often quoted figure that words only account for 7% of the message is a distortion! – Gary Wood

It doesn’t relate to any type of communication. It is context specific. These figures mainly relate to a situation where we are forming an attitude (like or dislike) of someone. So the words could still be the most important part of the message. The body language and tone of voice are what we mainly use to assess whether we like the person delivering the message.

The other situation where non-verbal communication seems to have priority is where there is a conflict between the words and non-verbal stuff. If communication lacks congruence, we are more like to disbelief the words. None of this is the same as saying ‘in any communication’.

Often, in research, the context is everything!

For more on confidence-building, presentation skills and impression management, see Unlock Your Confidence (to read a sample see Amazon UK or Amazon USA ).

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About the author

Pic: Dr Gary Wood on TVDr Gary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to help people to develop their inherent abilities and relax about communication rather than obsessing over abstract techniques. The book covers the basics of body language and other practical tips for forming positive first impressions His previous book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It has been translated into several languages including French (Changez Votre Vie). Registered with the Life Coach Directory

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