Saying Sorry: Why and How to Apologize

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In your personal life, when you make a mistake, you say you’re sorry. Usually these apologies are sincere and when they are not—when the child whose mother is forcing him to apologize sneers ‘sorry’—everyone knows.

Even though we all know how to apologize in our personal life, companies in crisis often fail to apologize effectively. A few things may be going on. First, they may have lawyers advising against any apology, or severely restricting its content out of fear for how it will impact pending or expected litigation. Often, with some work, it is possible to craft an apology that avoids your lawyers’ concerns while still being true and effective. When it is not, remember that it is your lawyers’ role to give you legal advice. Your role is to do what is best for the company, and legal advice is only part of deciding what that is. To win the litigation but lose your brand, your investors, or your reputation, is no victory in the long run.

Second, the company or executive may be feeling defensive, or scared by the high stakes of the crisis. Think of the child who knocks over his mother’s prize vase. She may really be sorry, but so scared of her mother’s reaction that she can’t bring herself to fully own up to it, and her apology turns into an attempt to shift the blame to the dog. People are highly attuned to the nuances of apology and easily pick up on this sort of blame shifting or half-apology. If you have anger, defensiveness, or fear, it can’t show in your apology.

An effective apology can come in many forms, but it must be:

  1. Prompt: You need to apologize promptly after you realize you have wronged someone—otherwise it will not be seen as sincere.
  2. Specific: You must show you understand what you did wrong, who you injured, and why. The all too common phrase “I’m sorry you were offended” apologizes for nothing because it identifies no conduct being apologized for and no one being apologized to. “Mom, I’m sorry I broke your vase, I know it was special to you” is an effective apology.
  3. Sincere: You must take sincere responsibility. Your apology cannot be self-serving or contain rationalizations for your actions, and certainly cannot hedge on the existence of the underlying conduct. A sincere apology must be accompanied by an end to the underlying conduct and, if warranted, an appropriate attempt at recompense. In the words of Benjamin Franklin “never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
  4. Empathetic: You need to show you understand how your conduct made the injured party feel and promise to try to not repeat it. The injured party needs to know you understand why the conduct was wrong. If you specifically ask for forgiveness, make sure your apology warrants it.

It takes a strong sense of self to view your mistakes clearly and admit to them. Some people find apology to be threatening because they conflate their action and their character. Thus, for example, if they were neglectful or careless they feel that must mean that they are fundamentally selfish. The apology thus threatens their sense of identity and self-esteem. In other cases people may fear that an apology will only lead to further conflict, reopening previous offenses for which they had also not apologized. Some people feel that an apology means assuming full responsibility and relieving anyone else of fault. An apology is an act of humility—a trait that for better or worse modern society does not often call upon powerful people to exercise. It requires that you both recognize that you have done wrong and express that recognition.

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