Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Simple Art of the Apology

"Sorry, I did not mean what I said."

We've all been on the receiving end of this line. I wonder how many of us were ever satisfied by its meaning, or lack thereof. I wonder how many man up enough to actually speak the truth and say "I am sorry because I meant what I said."

Sincere apologies are hard to come by and hard to offer, we all know.

But just like there is an art to public speaking, to writing, to cooking, etc. there is also an art to the apology. And it is pretty simple.

Keep it short.

Own it.

Mean it.

Offer to do whatever it takes to fix the situation.

Keep it short--Most times a heartfelt "sorry" will do. Seriously. Once we start adding to it we run the risk of adulterating the meaning of it. These add ons mimic the artificial colorings of the culinary world. They may look good, but are completely unnecessary.
I once read this smart quote "Don't ruin an apology with an excuse." I think nothing could explain better than that what the offended party hopes to hear.

Own it--If you offended someone, then the apology should always start with "I." Not "we" not "they" and no passive voice (e.g., "The mistakes made had negative repercussions."). Don't insult the offended party further by resorting to these ways of hiding behind someone or something else.

How is this relevant to your business? An absurd amount of time is lost to workplace friction, most times due to one or more parties refusing to admit their wrong-doings. If it is necessary to walk your team through the art of the apology as part of a mini-training, do it. The rewards in time, money, productivity and overall work experience will be immense. In addition, a sincere apology is quicker as it does not allow for much he said she said, it is the first building block to repair a fractured relationship, and best of all, it makes feelings of frustration and resentment vanish on both sides. When a simple "I was wrong" is offered, even in the worse of situations, forgiveness is usually instantaneous and mutual respect is regained.

Here are some examples of how not to do it:

"I am heartsick about my personal legal situation and deeply sorry for the pain and difficulties it has caused our employees."
Martha Stewart

"The Duke of Edinburgh regrets any offense which may have been caused by remarks he is reported as making earlier today. With hindsight, he accepts what were intended as light-hearted comments were inappropriate."
Buckingham Palace, on Prince Philip saying a fuse box looked "as though it was put in by an Indian."

"If I caused anybody, including myself, any pain about the comments I made earlier, then I want to apologize to myself and Senator Obama and any of his supporters."
South Carolina's Senator Robert Ford's quasi-apology after being asked why he endorsed Hillary Clinton and replying, "Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he is black and he's top of the ticket. We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."

In lieu of more effective apology examples, just remember chemist-inventor Orlando Battista's thought: "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it," and a good ol' apology is usually the best first step.

Training Strategy: should you choose to include an apology section in your communications or customer service training, discussing what is actually wrong with each of the above referenced apologies will be an effective way for your team to self-discover why following The Art of the Apology principles is the best way to go.

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