How To Recover From Your Most Awkward Moments

How to: Apologize

Sorry, my mistake. It won’t happen again. Please forgive me. If such words come easily to you, you’re lucky. Most of us have to steel ourselves to apologize, sometimes because it feels as if we were fully justified in our offending behavior, other times because it is so humiliating to admit that we weren’t.

It turns out that the words you utter when apologizing are less important than the act of apologizing itself. Social psychologist Steven Scher of Eastern Illinois University has identified five main elements of apologies: 1) a simple expression of regret (“I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” or “Excuse me”); 2) an explanation or account of the cause that brought about the violation (“I forgot to call you the other day with the information”); 3) an expression of the speaker’s responsibility for the offense (“What I did was wrong”); 4) a promise of forbearance (“I promise nothing like this will happen again”); and 5) an offer of repair (“What can I do to make it up to you?”). Employing any of these strategies is better than using none, Scher has found, and the effects can be additive—the more components you include in the apology, the better. Perhaps most important, make it genuine: Insincere apologies can be worse than none at all, found psychologist Jeanne Zechmeister and colleagues at Chicago’s Loyola University.

Who Knew? Sexism of Sorry
Women do apologize more than men but not for the reasons you think, say social psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross of the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. “Our findings suggest that men apologize less frequently than women not because their egos are more fragile but because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”

How to: Dole Out Praise

Kind words can be powerful motivators—but only if you praise the right things. Praising someone’s ability to work hard is more effective than gushing about how brilliant she is. Research shows that kids who are praised for their intelligence do not try as hard on future tasks. “Being praised for effort or other aspects of performance directly under your control leads to resilience, while being praised for being smart or for other innate abilities can lead to feelings of helplessness or self-doubt when a setback occurs,” says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.

How praise is delivered counts as much as what gets praised. Praise should be specific and sincere—and given generously, especially at the office. Workers asked to learn a task performed better the next day if they had been praised at the end of the previous day, say Japanese researchers. To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being given money.

How to: Persuade Others
Our polarized political climate might suggest that no one can be persuaded to anything; everyone has already made up his or her mind. But if that were true, there would be no salesmen, lawyers, or therapists. In fact, each day, many of us have to persuade people to buy into something they might not otherwise consider.

When you want to change someone’s mood, mind, or willingness to act, don’t ask yourself, How can I win this argument? Instead, ask, How can I win agreement without anger? advises rhetoric expert Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. Figure out what you want, and then go about getting it.

“Never debate the undebatable,” he says. “Instead, focus on goals.” Control the mood with volume, tone, stories. Watch for persuadable moments. And most important, be agreeable—express similarities and shared values; show people that you have their best interests, as well as your own, at heart. (You’d say, “You may not agree with _____, but do you really want Big Brother deciding what we can and can’t do in our private lives?”)

Who Knew? Peer Power
Never discount the influential effect of comparing people with their fellows, says Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychologist turned consultant who wrote Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He cites an energy company that placed monthly hangers on office doors so that employees could compare how much energy each one used—and the process reduced overall usage by 3.5 percent. “It’s not peer pressure as much as ‘social evidence,’ ” says rhetoric expert Heinrichs. Evolutionarily, it’s proved smart to do what those around us in similar situations have done.

How to: Frame Criticism

No one likes being told he is doing something wrong, which means that even “constructive criticism” is usually received with defensiveness. That’s why Denver psychologist Susan Heitler— a founder of, a website focused on building communication skills—recommends feedback that “skips the complaining and goes straight to the explaining.”

For instance, while cooking, don’t say to your husband, “That’s not the way to sauté. It will dry out the potatoes.” Instead, offer helpful advice such as “My grandma taught me three tips for keeping sautéed potatoes soft and yummy: Start your potatoes and onions in a hot skillet, keep adding small amounts of butter, and keep stirring until the onions are translucent.”

For parents, the same approach applies to homework and chores. Choose encouraging statements over stern commands, and say what you’d prefer your child do rather than what she has not done or has done incorrectly. Say “I’d love to see your playroom cleaned up by this weekend so you andyour friends can have fun there” instead of “This place is a mess! What have you been doing? You haven’t picked up one thing. No one is coming over this weekend until this room is spotless.”