Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

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From JetBlue to Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards to Pete Rose, at some point everyone needs to know how to make an effective apology. This is a survival guide for all of us who find a need to apologize in our business or professional work, either for ourselves or for our organizations. It guides the reader through all aspects of making effective apologies in all situations.

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CHAPTER 1: the age of apology

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In October 2007, the track and field sensation Marion Jones—who won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney—made a startling revelation. Jones admitted that she took performance-enhancing steroids, and that she had lied when she previously denied steroid use in statements to the press, to various sports agencies, and—most significantly—to two grand juries. She apologized on the steps of the U.S. District Court in White Plains, New York:

It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust. I want all of you to know that today I plead guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal agents.

Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I have done.

To you, my fans, including my young supporters, the United States Track and Field Association, my closest friends, my attorneys, and the most classy family a person could ever hope for—namely my mother, my husband, my children, my brother and his family, my uncle, and the rest of my extended family: I want you to 14know that I have been dishonest. And you have the right to be angry with me.

 

CHAPTER 2: why we apologize and what it accomplishes

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Should I have apologized? I was attending a poetry festival in Tieton, Washington, a picturesque arts community about two hours east of Seattle. At one point, about ten of us participated in a letterpress workshop. We each had the opportunity to hand set the type for one of our poems and then print copies using a process akin to what Johannes Gutenberg used. So that we could quickly check our work for accuracy prior to printing, the instructor combined all our type forms and ran off a single sheet with all our poems. Later, the blocks of type would be separated so each attendee could run off individual copies of his or her poem.

The sheet with all the poems was passed from author to author. When it came to me, I checked my work—it was fine— and then I noticed that one of the other workshop attendees, Tom (not his real name), had a glaring spelling error in the title to his poem. Should I say something? A part of me wanted to. But I wasn’t sure. I said nothing. We then took turns cranking the old letterpress machine.

 

CHAPTER 3: recognition

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Recognition—acknowledging the offense—is the first dimension of apology. It establishes that an offense requiring apology has been committed. To the offender this step may seem as obvious as the offense itself, and therefore it may be tempting to just get through the apology to “get on with it.” But more often than not, skipping the recognition step results in a statement that just compounds the offense because it leaves the victim uncertain whether the apologizer understands why the victim is so upset. I urge offenders to make the effort to refract their offense through the consciousness of recognition.

It’s not easy. First, it’s hard to put words to the offense, which is what the recognition step demands. It’s not enough for me to apologize by admitting I was a jerk. Recognition requires me to specify exactly how I was a jerk. I’m sorry I didn’t show up at your dinner party after accepting your invitation. That was rude of me. Second, recognition requires that the apologizer mentally exchange places with the victim. To prevent an apology from being completely self-serving, offenders need to be able to have a toehold inside the victim’s point of view. Recognition asks the offender to stand with one foot comfortably inside a carefully circumscribed zone of her own interests while placing another foot squarely outside the zone.

 

CHAPTER 4: responsibility

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The key to effective apology is taking responsibility for the consequences of your behavior. The recognition dimension specifies the offenses and violations. The next step establishes that the offender accepts responsibility for them. It lays the moral agency for those offenses squarely and solely at the feet of the offender. What distinguishes the most moving apologies is the integrity that offenders demonstrate when they look deep into their hearts and reckon uncompromisingly with what they find there. In the responsibility dimension there is a focus on making the apology more about the needs of the victim than about redemption for the offender. In fearlessly pushing away all excuses, the apologizer retains undiluted responsibility. Underlying it all is the intention that the offender values the relationship and desires to rebuild it on terms agreeable to the victim.

In crafting an apology, offenders have to take special care to accept full responsibility for their own precise role in what happened. That means fully owning their words, their actions, and their life. They don’t try to blame anyone else; they don’t try to spin. In practical terms, this means saying what you are apologizing for, admitting to it openly, and accepting moral agency for it without trying to minimize it, making excuses, or blaming anyone else. “Apologizing is fundamentally about taking full responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on,” blogs Charles Green. “Fully owning your words, 74your actions, your life helps everything fall into place. Blame is gone. Wishing is gone. Whining and tweaking and sliming and spinning are all gone when you take responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.”1

 

CHAPTER 5: remorse

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Once a victim understands that the offender has recognized that an offense has occurred and accepts responsibility, he or she expects the offender to have some remorse. The third dimension of effective apology is designed to signal the offender’s contrition. Because there is no way to know whether someone else is experiencing remorse, we rely on a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues. By far the most important verbal cue, without which a statement falls short of being an actual apology, is the phrase “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” There are no suitable alternatives. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are also crucial markers of remorse.

Using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is pretty much nonnegotiable. It is, in fact, the entire reason for the apology, and without such an expression you may as well not bother with the apology at all. It’s when we feel remorse most directly that we, as offenders, utter the indispensable phrases “I am sorry” or “I apologize.” We will encounter a few cases of effective nonverbal apologies in which remorse is acted out rather than stated, but these are rare.

 

CHAPTER 6: restitution

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Restitution, the fourth dimension of effective apology, is the practical attempt to restore the relationship to what it was before you broke it. Effective apology is more than just words. For serious breaches, the offender must demonstrate a concrete expression of contrition. In other words, it must have some element of action. That element is restitution.

Restitution should be a critical part of every apology. Without restitution, it becomes more difficult for offended parties to accept an apology, however well crafted. How could they? The relationship remains unbalanced. The offender continues to benefit to the disadvantage of the victim. It is no wonder that victims and judges alike pay careful attention to what an offender actually does in the way of restitution, because restitution is the clearest expression of the offender’s desire to restore the relationship.

Some years ago, an acquaintance I’ll call Rory went through a particularly contentious divorce in which he felt victimized by his ex-wife. For many years he felt so bitter toward her that he refused to take her calls and returned her letters unopened. He continued to hold on to bitterness over what he perceived to be her greed in the settlement. With the passage of time and economic success, enough of the resentment faded for Rory to finally open a letter from his ex-wife. He was surprised to see that it was a letter of apology. He gave me permission to quote from it:

 

CHAPTER 7: repetition

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The fifth dimension of apology—repetition—provides a measure of reassurance to the victim that the offender will not repeat the offense. This is the step that many otherwise thoughtful apologies omit. But through that omission otherwise good apologies suffer, because all victims may have a conscious or unconscious barrier to accepting an apology. For many, the thought of being revictimized is almost unbearably humiliating. The fear that we may be ensnared a second time by the same person prevents many of us from accepting an apology. This fear breeds a suspicion that is a major barrier to moving forward. (That’s too bad, because, as I will show later, accepting an apology does not necessarily mean that we trust the offender. It just means that we acknowledge that the offender has offered an apology reasonably complete in form and substance.)

The most effective apologies include a statement that the offense will not be repeated. A particularly effective phrase is a variant of, “I promise it will never happen again.” By the way, it is often effective to end the apology with such a commitment. Communication theory suggests that people remember best what they hear last.

 

CHAPTER 8: when, where, and how to apologize

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The words you choose to communicate your apologetic intent are absolutely at the core of any apology. But words are not the only elements of effective apology. Once you have decided to apologize and reflected on what to say, you must make at least three critical decisions. How well you answer these three questions will add to or detract from your planned apology. The three questions are:

To illustrate how thinking intentionally about each of these points contributes to an effective apology, here’s how a consultant colleague handled a huge mistake with an apology equal to the task. Bill Treasurer is founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a leadership consultancy in Asheville, NC. He is a former member of the U.S. High Diving Team. For seven years he traveled throughout the world, performing over 1,500 high dives from heights of 100 feet or more.

Apology, he says, is like a dive from a high place. You really don’t know what you’re diving into. That’s what makes apology at once so mysterious and so powerful.

 

CHAPTER 9: how to accept (and reject) an apology

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Janet and Ed were coworkers in a fast-food restaurant. One night they were closing up and Janet decided to play a trick on Ed. When Ed entered the walk-in freezer, Janet shut the door. She thought it was funny. But as she pulled the door handle, nothing happened. The door was locked tight and she didn’t have the key. To her horror, she had trapped Ed in the deep freeze. She heard Ed banging on the walls. Janet didn’t know what to do. She knew that she would get fired for this stunt, but she had no other choice but to wake up the store manager. It was an hour before he could get to the store with the key to the freezer. Meanwhile Janet was crazy with worry and remorse for a joke that had gone very bad. When the manager arrived, the first thing he told Janet was “You’re fired!” Then he unlocked the freezer and pulled the heavy door open. They went in expecting the worst. But the freezer was empty and Ed was nowhere to be found.

In fact, Ed had escaped from the freezer by a little-known service door that led to the parking lot. Then he had simply gone home. He thought he was just continuing the joke that Janet had started. He had no idea about the panic Janet had gone through or the fact that she had lost her job. Later, Janet called Ed to apologize. She had thought long and hard about what she wanted to say.

 

CHAPTER 10: apology and forgiveness

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Some people think accepting an apology is the same as forgiving the offender. This chapter argues that apology and forgiveness are distinct and should be treated as such. As I indicated in Chapter 9, accepting an apology is a commitment to a particular process. Forgiveness is an entirely different process that ultimately cannot be determined by the presence or absence of an apology. As complicated as apology is, forgiveness is arguably even more so. This book is about apology, not forgiveness, but because the two are inextricably linked, this chapter will describe how they respond to different human needs. I will also touch on the related terms repentance and reconciliation.

I have already defined apology as an acknowledgment of an offense followed by an expression of responsibility, remorse, and restitution, and a promise not to repeat the behavior. It’s an interaction between at least two parties: the offender, who makes him- or herself vulnerable and risks rejection or retaliation, and the victim, who may be unwilling to admit being hurt, reluctant to participate in a conversation, or averse to giving up the grudge. Both parties are required to participate in the dialogue. In contrast, forgiveness is a unilateral process. It’s a process whereby the victim relinquishes grudges, forgoes fantasies of revenge, and surrenders feelings of hatred or resentment directed at the offender. In some cases, the feelings of hatred 172are replaced by attitudes of compassion, generosity, and even love. Forgiveness requires a shift in both heart and mind, an emotional and cognitive leap that is entirely voluntary and independent of the offender. Here’s how British philosopher Joanna North defines forgiveness:

 

CHAPTER 11: obstacles to wholehearted apology

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Ego is usually the main obstacle to getting apology right. The ego is the organized part of our personality structure that provides, among other things, the defensive function. To the extent that apology makes us vulnerable, apology threatens the ego. Though we may want to offer a wholehearted apology, our egos frequently dial the apology back. In extreme cases, we end up doing the old bait and switch. We advertise a genuine apology but deliver something less authentic. The problem is not in the dispatch, it’s in the delivery. This chapter is about recognizing how the defenses mounted by our personalities can get in the way of our efforts to apologize.

Wholehearted apology doesn’t make us as vulnerable as we may fear. It’s actually in our interest to approach apology with an emphasis on compassion for the wronged party instead of the protection of our own narrow interests. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that apology doesn’t come naturally or easily. We have to work at it. In other words, we must first understand how our good apology intentions get sidetracked.

 

CHAPTER 12: the best apology possible: ten apology do’s and don’ts

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One of the key values I have tried to communicate in this book is that apologies need to go all the way. An apology is not a test you study for. You don’t get credit for partial apologies. In fact, a halfhearted apology usually makes the situation even worse. Defending a less-than-wholehearted apology will get you nowhere.

There are unlimited ways to botch an apology, but the vast majority of pitfalls fall into ten common categories. If you keep these ten do’s and don’ts in mind your apologies will be much more effective.

Adding the word “if” or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology.

I certainly apologize if I offended anyone.

If my remarks were out of line, I’m sorry.

If anyone found my remarks offensive, I certainly apologize.

The word “if” is the nastiest qualifier in the context of apology. It always reduces the effectiveness of the apology. The word “if” makes the offense conditional; it says the offense may 204or may not have happened, that it depends more on the sensibilities of the victim than on the responsibility of the apologizer. This is infuriating for the victim, for whom the offense is very real.

 

CHAPTER 13: talking about apology: frequently asked questions

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CHAPTER 14: what can I do now? five apology practices

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Throughout this book I have characterized apology as a practice, so it is fitting to suggest a number of ways in which you can actually practice apology—and improve your apology skill and effectiveness. The more you practice apology, the easier it gets and the more effective your apologies and relationships become. My goal here is to provide you with some practical tools that will enable you to make relaxed and confident apology a daily part of your life (as needed). There is more to practicing apology than being vigilant for mistakes and then saying the right words, although that’s a good start. In summary, practicing apology requires:

Most of all, practicing apology demands a commitment to the truth and the steep climb to self-awareness that the truth dictates.

In Chapter 1, I identified a number of obstacles to apology. The obstacles are framed in a variety of ways: “My followers need me to be strong”; “The situation will be worse if224people are rattled when they see I’m fallible”; “They will never let me live it down”; “It’s too risky to apologize.” All of these objections assume that an apology is a bargaining chip that can be exchanged for some concession. The unchallenged assumption is that we live in a punitive world. One of the main goals of practicing apology is to challenge this assumption—the fear that our apologies will be turned against us. That can happen, but it’s also possible that an apology will help to restore our strained relationships, build integrity, and make us more—not less—secure.

 

apology examples by category

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American Airlines CEO Donald Carty apologizes for pension scandal (U.S.), 110–111

Bill Treasurer apologizes for insulting clients (U.S.), 127–131

Bradford Martin apologizes for defrauded customers of used car lot (U.S.), 103

Cartoon Network apologizes for guerilla marketing stunt (U.S.), 76–79

University department chair apologizes to colleaue (U.S.), 55–56

Dreamhost CEO Josh Jones apologizes for botched apology with attempt at humor (U.S.), 207–209

Executive apologizes for arrogance during presentation (U.S.), 104–106

Francisco Calvo shows remorse for fraud (Saipan), 87

General Motors apologizes for arrogance following request for subsidies (U.S.), 109–110

Green Bay Press-Gazette’s apology article (U.S.), 89

Interference, Inc. apologizes for guerilla marketing stunt (U.S.), 79–81

Jack Welch apology story (U.S.), 91–93

Lee Iacocca apologizes for Chrysler odometer setbacks, 63–64

Maple Leaf Food CEO Michael McCain apologizes for food contamination (Canada), 143–144

McNeil Consumer Healthcare apologizes for offensive Motrin ad (U.S.), 144–145

 

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