The art of apology revisited


The basic lesson set forth in Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is:

“Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody.” We all make mistakes. We lie, procrastinate, break our promises, or make unpalatable jokes at someone’s expense.

Sometimes we c
ompletely misinterpret a situation and overreact. The antidote to all this is to apologise.

Being genuinely sorry when we offend others seems to be a normal human reaction. But how many of us know when or how to say we’re sorry?

Some months ago, Thembe Sachikonye wrote an article in NewsDay on the art of apology. That prompted me to write this article, with a particular focus on my passion, workplace relations.

In the corporate world and in celebrity circles, elaborate apologies are crafted and delivered as “damage control” or to enhance reputations.

Recall Akio Toyoda apologising for fatalities caused by defective Toyota vehicles or Robert Eckert, chairman and CEO of Mattel toys apologising for the ultra-high traces of lead in their Chinese toys?

Not so long ago, we witnessed a high-profile televised apology by Tiger Woods over his infidelity.

The wife of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi went to the extent of demanding a public apology for her husband’s serial flirtations!

Why is it that some people are not willing to apologise even if they know they are in the wrong?

To start with, most people find it embarrassing to apologise. They sink into a state of denial and try to downplay the offence. In other cases, the offender may even try to blame the victim.

According to Steve Covey in his highly acclaimed book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it takes a great deal of character strength to make an apology.

A person must possess a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologise.

People with little internal security can’t do it. It makes them too vulnerable. It makes them appear soft and weak, and they fear that others will take advantage of their weakness.

Their security is based on the opinions of other people and they worry about what others might think.

When an individual needs to be seen as strong, powerful, decisive and capable in order to exercise her or his role, offering an apology may be viewed as a sign of weakness or backing down, but is it?

Leo Roskin taught us: “It is the weak who are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.”

In the workplace, a sincere apology could be therapeutic to the relations between yourself and your boss, your peers or subordinates.

It could mean escaping a potential dismissal for an offence or getting a warning that is less harsh than would ordinarily be.

In short, it results in a more friendly workplace environment. Learning how to apologise is therefore an essential skill in your career, unless you’re prepared to change jobs on a regular basis.

Apologies matter for two reasons. Firstly, they restore relationships.

When an offence has torn the fabric of a relationship, an apology fixes it. It diffuses anger and ill-will.

Secondly, apologies mend the offender’s reputation. An effective apology reassures the victim and all people who may be familiar with what happened, that the offence is understood and unlikely to be repeated.

At this point you may be asking yourself, “So how do I apologise?” Most of us are often in the woods when it comes to the art of apology.

The art of an apology deals with how you should package, present and deliver the “ingredients” of your apology. There is much to be learned about what works, what doesn’t, when to apologise, and when perhaps not to.

According to Holly Weeks in her article The Art of the Apology in the Harvard Management Update of April 2003, apologies involve three elements:

acknowledgment of a fault, regret for it, and responsibility. A sincere, effective apology would necessarily express all the three, in most instances. Some of the dos and don’ts in the art of apology are as follows:

Express your apology promptly, not weeks or months after the event. However, even a belated apology is better than no apology at all!

An apology should be succinct, specific and detailed. It should not leave people asking “What exactly was he/she apologising for?”

Apologising on its own may be insufficient. It must be followed with action to correct the wrong or compensation.

To say “I want to apologise” is not an apology. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness or clichés.

An apology goes beyond mere “expression of regret”. Instead, your goal should be to actually communicate your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person. That way, your apology will be better received.

Apologies must be as direct as possible to those you have harmed.

Find words that are clear and accurate, not provocative. A good apology should make the person wronged think, “Yes, he/she understands.”

There must be a clear “cause and effect” relationship between what you are apologising for and what the recipient experienced as the original wrong.

Apologies must be personal and must be filled with the “I” language.

Don’t be defensive. Too often, like a school child in the principal’s office, the offender muddies the waters of his or her apology with excuses and explanations. This may actually exacerbate the problem. A poor apology may be worse than no apology at all.

Apologies must be genuine. For goodness’ sake, don’t pretend to be sorry if you are not! The victim will see through your half-hearted, “mummy made me say it” apology.

Consider the angle of approach in the delivery of your apology. You can decide to offer a verbal apology. A person-to-person apology is likely to resonate well with both parties. However, a written apology is also acceptable in certain instances. Choose the approach that is easier for you to do well.

Covey likens the act of wronging the other person to making a “withdrawal” from the “emotional bank account” and apologising as making a “deposit” into that account. To be a deposit, an apology must be sincere or at least it must be perceived as being so.

Deposits come in such words as, “I was wrong”, “That was unkind of me”, “I showed you no respect”, “I gave you no dignity, and I’m deeply sorry”, “I embarrassed you in front of your friends and I had no reason to do that. Even though I wanted to make a point, I never should have done it.

For that, I apologise.” Sincere apologies make great deposits; repeated apologies interpreted as insincere amount to withdrawals.

Only your imagination can limit you in the art of apology. Make your apology more thoughtful by adding whatever personal touch you feel appropriate to your situation to make your victim understand how very sorry you are.

A real apology makes business sense, besides it being an appropriate response from human beings who care about other people’s feelings.

Done right, an apology can enhance both reputations and relationships at work. Done wrong, it can compound the original mistake, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst writing in his own capacity.

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