The Power of the Apology

As one year turns into another, I seek topics with larger reach, in the hopes that they could function as resolutions. This one certainly qualifies: the fine art of showing contrition and remorse. I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on the subject, given that my wife has been telling me for two decades that my apologies are lousy.

To an audience, there are few things more powerful than a presenter who offers a true apology. Showing that level of humanity, sincerity, and vulnerability is difficult to do and proves endearing on many levels. So let’s talk about what qualifies as a sincere-sounding apology.

If you include “I’m sorry” in a sentence, there is no guarantee that it will be interpreted as an apology, and in fact, the exact opposite effect is in play. Take these examples:

“I’m sorry that you feel this way…”

“I’m sorry that you took offense…”

“If my advice upsets you, well, I’m sorry…”

These are unfortunate word choices that could backfire. In the first case, you are not taking responsibility for making the person feel that way; you’re only expressing dismay that he or she does. In the second example, you are allowing for the suggestion that the person is wrong to have taken offense, and the third example sounds downright defensive. All three of these statements could make a situation worse, not better.

Being sorry is really a mediocre commodity. It could be thrown into dozens of phrases, in which it loses all resemblance to contrition. One of my standard lines when discussing people’s expectation of PowerPoint is: “Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.” This phrase does not get me into trouble because nobody interprets it as an actual apology. The “well sorrrrree” remark is universally interpreted as sarcasm. And that’s precisely the point: being “sorry” is really not worth much.

It is far more difficult to misuse the words “I apologize” or “forgive me” and therefore they carry more weight.

“I apologize for making you feel that way.”

“I apologize for any offense taken.”

“Please forgive me for that upsetting advice.”

What a difference! These sentences acknowledge accountability — they show you know that your actions or words made something bad happen. They deal with real pain and real awareness. They are more genuine and more impactful.

To strengthen my argument here, I look to a portion of my audience for whom this advice is implausible. I have clients who work for city governments, planning commissions, public utilities, and in political arenas. For many of them, the public apology could be politicized and used against them. This is why you often hear the watered-down phrase of “regret.”

“We regret the actions that caused the local grocery to close down.”

“We regret that 50 people lost their jobs.”

If you regret something, it could mean little more than that you wish it hadn’t happened (definition: to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over). Don’t use language like that unless you are blatantly dancing around an apology. The fact that issuing an apology could get politicians into trouble is exactly why I want you to use it when warranted. It is real, it is raw, it is powerful.

The next time you have to offer up a mea culpa, don’t just be sorry. Apologize!

 

7 Comments

  1. clinton taylor on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Wonderful examples, food for thought. I will endeavor to try and use some of your suggestion in the very near future. Thanks

    Clinton Taylor
    Speaker-Life Development Professional
    Right State of Mind

  2. Narayana Prasad on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Human errors are common. We may have experience, knowledge but, the point is, knowingly or un-knowingly we are prone to errors . Instead of feeling great for having benefited many, we should bow down to the few who suffer from our decisions or actions. The down to earth behaviour starts with Apology.

  3. Sai Bhupalam on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I think in some circles it is believed that apologizing means to lose your audience’s confidence. If you can prove that you have added great value to the audience then mistakes and apologies will not undermine your success. In fact, a litlle humility can go a long way in building relationships.

  4. Vicky Deeble on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I’m trying to recall a need for a ‘true’ apology when I have presented inthe past; as opposed to a ‘sorry about that’ moment – when something hasn’t gone according to plan.

  5. Rick Altman on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Vicky, there might be only a few times when the act of presenting warrants an apology. Indeed, it would be overkill to say “I sincerely apologize for the projector being too dim.”

    But there are many times when the *purpose* of the presentation is to own up to something, such as the infamous “mistakes were made” address. That is when this discussion finds its highest relevance.

  6. Matthew Trump on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Never apologise, never explain. Just get it right.

  7. Pilar Orti on Jan 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    If it were possible to get things right all the time, these blogs wouldn’t exist! As to what makes a sincere-sounding apology, well, no apology is worth giving if it is not sincere. Sincerity is really difficult to fake.

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