Apologizing Well in Business and in Life

| By TMA World

Being British, I’m used to apologizing.  If someone treads on my foot, my instinctual response is to say something like, “I’m so sorry.  I shouldn’t have put my foot underneath yours.”  If someone bumps into me on the London Underground, I will immediately say, “I’m sorry.” Apologies in Britain are a kind of cultural background noise.  Apologies to my fellow countrymen and women.

The US comedian – Bill Maher – had to apologize recently for using the ‘n’ word on his TV show.  The TV station was inundated with calls and texts wanting him to be fired.  Here is Maher’s apology:

“Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show . . . Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment.  The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

Most of us will apologize several times a week (or, perhaps, everyday), but do we make good apologies? A good apology being one that communicates sincere regret, and repairs damage to trust.

As an apology, how does Maher’s stand up? 

To answer this question, let me refer to Dr. Beth Polin, co-author of The Art of the Apology.  An apology she says includes one or more of six components:

  • An expression of regret – “I’m sorry.”
  • An explanation, but not a justification.
  • An acknowledgement of responsibility.
  • A declaration or repentance.
  • An offer of repair.
  • A request for forgiveness.

Maher does say he’s sorry, but the apology gets lost in language that looks to excuse his action.  As Benjamin Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse” (in Maher’s case, a lack of sleep).  Let’s look a little deeper at the Maher example.

In his short statement, he refers twice to the fact that the show was ‘live’, the implied meaning being that speaking in the moment is an explanation, when it is, in fact, a rationalization – another way of shifting responsibility.  He also tries to minimize (even trivialize) what he said by referring to it in the context of ‘banter’.  Maher also doesn’t seem to have thought very much about the power of the ‘n-word’ to the African-American community, especially when it is appropriated and used so casually by a white male (even a comedian).  Finally, he doesn’t say what he is going to do to ensure he doesn’t repeat this behavior in the future. As the 19th century theologian, Tyron Edwards, said “Right actions in the future are the best apologies for actions in the past.”

The last sentence of Maher’s apology is much better.  It is direct, and says in simple terms what needs to be said – “The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”  The passive voice, e.g. “Mistakes were made,” doesn’t convey ownership of what was said or done.  The same can be said of the word “if” in an apology, “Sorry if what I said offended you.”

While saying sorry matters a great deal, what Polin and her colleagues found in their research was that acknowledging responsibility – “I realize it was my fault, and I accept responsibility for it.”  The least effective element of an apology is asking for forgiveness.

In business or in life, we should never underestimate the positive power of a good apology or the destructive power of a bad one. 

Note: For more useful examples and tips regarding how to apologize, visit www.sorrywatch.com.


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