The last few days have generated a great deal of bad behavior in the public eye. I find it intriguing to watch and listen to apologies when people misbehave, especially celebrities. Most appear more as PR moves than sincere beliefs of poor behavior, and there is always a discussion as to whether the selected person is truly sorry. As a communicator, I find myself listening to the word choices used in an apology. Are they apologizing to the offended party or are they apologizing for the offended party? There’s a big difference, but it can be subtle.
A good apology is a piece of art and typically contains three elements — acknowledgment, regret and responsibility.
Dos and Don’ts
1. Do choose your words wisely. Good apologies should leave no doubt in the mind of the wronged that the person in the wrong is truly are sorry for his behavior. The offended person wants to know two things: that the offender understands where he’s gone wrong and that it won’t happen again.
2. Don’t apologize for the wrong thing. Companies often apologize for the “inconvenience” of poor service and individuals often apologize for someone else taking offense at something that was said. People and institutions tend to apologize for what they find forgivable. If there is no clear relationship between what the apology is for and what the offended experienced as the original wrong, the apology actually makes the problem worse. At best, the offender will appear blind to the problem; at worst, he will be perceived as intentionally distorting it.
3. Do consider the angle of approach. Are you dealing with an apology in a professional or personal setting? The relationship between the wronged person and the offender can play a big role in how the apology should be made. Consider whether it will be easier to apologize position to position or person to person. If the offender is angry with the person to whom he has to apologize, it might be easier to look at the apology in terms of the respective jobs or rank held. If senior manager is angry with an employee but must apologize for speaking harshly to him, then the senior manager might find it easier to frame the apology from the perspective of her position of authority.
4. Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, the goal of an apology should be actually communicating true regret, showing the offended person that the person in the wrong understands the problem. Expression is one sided—as though one were getting an apology off one’s chest. Communication, however, occurs between people, and an apology needs to work well for the other person to be effective. It’s important to remove the focus from the apologizing person and keep it on the person who was wronged. That protects the person apologizing from sounding defensive, and the apology will be better received.
5. Do actually apologize. “I want to apologize” is not an apology. It’s a statement much like “I want to eat” or “I want to sleep.” Saying something like “I’m sorry you feel that way” also is not an apology. Actually take the time to put thought into it and deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness or clichés. The person wronged and the public will see through it.
What are your thoughts? Anything I’m missing?