“By, of Thin Difference”
Apologies have dominated the headlines recently. Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Tom Price, Al Franken, Louis C.K., and Tim Murphy, a pro-life Republican Congressman who encouraged his mistress to have an abortion, are just a few of the prominent names to offer a public mea culpa in the past several months.
For the most part, their apologies have been terrible, even cringe-worthy. Al Franken, for example, had to issue three separate apologies because, apparently, the first two didn’t quite get the message across.
Bad apologies are like gym clothes. They stink. And, just like a person wearing sweaty workout attire, someone who gives a bad apology doesn’t know just how much they stink. But they do, especially to those closest to them.
While it’s easy to be hard on celebrities, athletes, and politicians who are terrible at saying, “I’m sorry,” most of us aren’t good at it either. Let’s face it: apologizing is hard. It’s humbling and feels like a punch to the ego. Some of us never apologize when we should (and yes, that includes a certain someone at the White House). As a result, we’re doing great damage to our reputation, those we love, and our ability to lead well.
To apologize is to be human. All of us make mistakes. None of us are perfect. I would argue the people who seem most approachable, relatable, humane, and dignified are those who apologize honestly and often. Have you ever worked for a boss who sincerely apologized to you for something? How did it change the way you saw that person? Most likely, your respect grew for them.
THE PEOPLE WHO SEEM MOST APPROACHABLE, RELATABLE, HUMANE, AND DIGNIFIED ARE THOSE WHO APOLOGIZE HONESTLY AND OFTEN.
The best parents give the best apologies to their kids. The best husbands are ready, willing, and looking to give the best apologies to their spouse, and vice versa. The best leaders can humbly admit they are wrong and they do something about it when they become aware of what they did, whether it was intentional or not.
So, we need to apologize. And, when we do, we don’t want our apologies to stink. A great apology can open a path to healing and reconnection. A poor apology often makes the problem worse. So, what separates a good apology from a bad one?
The Best Apologies
Are Clear: They define what behavior needs to be apologized for exactly and say the words, “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” or “Please forgive me.”
Aren’t Coerced: An unprompted apology will always carry more power than one that follows a confrontation. It’s why most apologies in the news that come because of an investigative report sound insincere. They’re apologizing because they have to, and as a result, the words sound hollow.
Are Timely: Closely related to the previous point, the best apologies are offered as soon as possible. They are prompt. A delayed apology starts to smell rotten quickly.
Are Personal: If we’ve wronged another person, the best apologies can’t happen on Twitter, Facebook, or by email. If possible, they happen face-to-face and require a conversation so that we can learn how specifically the other was hurt. It’s how we convey true sincerity, something social media or press releases struggle to do.
Ask “How Can I Help?”: This advice comes from a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode, the PBS kids’ show based on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (yes, I do have a three-year-old). Daniel learns that saying sorry is the first step; the second step is to ask, “How can I help?” The best apologies go beyond saying “I’m sorry.” They look to rectify what transpired.
Don’t Hedge Their Bets: The best apologies don’t use the word, “but.” Nor do they say, “I’m sorry… you feel that way.” Now, sometimes the best we can do is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I had to say this a little while ago to someone who had unfairly misinterpreted something I had said. After attempting to clear up the confusion through several conversations, I ultimately disagreed with their point of view. All I could honestly say to them at that point was I was sorry they felt that way. It wasn’t the best apology, but it was the best I could do.
Conditional apologies like that one will never be the best. They probably won’t feel like an apology to the person on the receiving end. My apology wasn’t received well by the person angry with me – they knew it wasn’t a complete apology and they were right. Great apologies don’t try to deflect, change the subject, or hold back. They take responsibility.
The world could use more great apologies. At the moment, most apologies don’t feel all that great. They’re humbling and hard. But, great people take responsibility, admit mistakes, and seek forgiveness. These are the people who connect with us because we know they’re human, just like we are. They change the world for good, one honest apology at a time.