Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

How to say Sorry. Properly.

armstrongLike the five stages of grief, the disgrace of a public figure has a trajectory. Being caught leads to outrage, silence, dismissal, denial, and finally (if they can’t avoid it) admission and apology. And like all falls-from-grace, there will be lessons for us ordinary folk to learn from their experience.

This was the most sought-after interview in sport.  A vast public has been waiting for  Lance Armstrong to explain, admit, and apologise for the doping scandal that’s had him stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and banned from sport for life.  With the apologies out of the way, we’d be happy to see him rehabilitate himself. [If you weren’t watching, you can see the highlights here.]

But it didn’t work out that way. In the words of John Kador, author of  Effective Apology:

An effective apology means giving up your argument with history. It means letting the victims have the last word. But throughout the interview, Armstrong displayed a constant need to have the last word for himself. It’s clear that he is not quite ready to do the heavy lifting of apology.

Armstrong did confess. He admitted what he did, and it was shocking. Acknowledging the harm he’s  done should have been  highly potent. But  he didn’t do the one thing  everyone wanted.  “He failed to apologize directly to all the people who believed in him, all the cancer survivors and cycling fans who thought his fairy-tale story was true,” as the New York Times wrote. “Not once did he look into the camera and say, without qualification, ‘I’m sorry.'” 

Instead he said “I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now”.  Good insight Lance.  Then  why are you doing this?   Because without emotional truth your apology has no power. The words without the feeling are counterfeit.  And that’s why the public  feels cheated. It’s like discovering you’ve accepted a  dud cheque.  

Why  apologising is hard

You don’t need to be a disgraced international sports hero to have trouble with this. In all but the closest  relationships apologies are rare.  Saying sorry  in the domestic, business or  community context can be  just as awkward  as in the public sphere.

It’s hard to say that we messed up – our pride  stops us. If we did something cruel or careless, we feel embarrassed.  Apologising can stir up unpleasant feelings of distress about what happened. And if we did something wrong, the other person probably did too. Sometimes we’re still mad at them. Status, position, credibility, and self-esteem all interrupt our wish to make it better. And as suing gains popularity, apologising loses it. The business culture of “cover your ass”  means we don’t say ‘sorry’ in case admitting guilt will lead us to a law suit.

How to say sorry properly

Apologies do matter. They do two things, says the Harvard Business Review. “First, they mend relationships. When an offense has torn the fabric of a relationship, an apology is a stage in its repair. Second, apologies mend the transgressor’s reputation. Following an offense, some people …may have concerns and doubts …. An effective apology can reassure people that the transgression is understood and not likely to be repeated”.

Kador  says there are ‘5 Rs’ to an effective apology:  recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution and repetition.

Like any communication,  to make an apology you need  to be clear  about what matters to your audience, and what you want  to communicate. What’s gone wrong? Why? What outcome  do you want as a result of the apology?

You may have to apologise because of your role, rather than  for something you’ve done personally. This happens to CEOs and politicians,  and is the domain of crisis communication consultants and professional advisors. Get their help – they can help you with your script and support you through the difficulties.

Timing is important. Are you ready? Sure you’re up to it? The lesson from Lance is that if you don’t mean it, you may make things worse.

And then there’s the language. Even if your heart wants  to say ‘sorry’, working out the words to use will be a challenge. Consider the right tone and language for your audience. What you say to your family is going to be different from what you’d say to your colleagues, boss, staff, neighbours or acquaintances.

An apology needs these three things:

1. Acknowledgment of  the fault. A description of what you did that was wrong and what ‘code’ was broken. When you explain,  avoid making  excuses or justifying yourself, it’s important to show your reasons for doing what you did, but  also to own your mistakes.

2. Regret. The healing begins when the wronged person senses your  emotion is honest. To say sorry properly,  you have to mean it.  Time’s list of the ten best apologies  – mostly celebrities who need to  repair their reputations for PR reasons, is chock full of formulaic insincerity  –  a great  guide to what not to do.

3. An offer of reparation: Finding a way to make good will mean a lot to the offended person or group.

Lance Armstrong needs to do much more work on Regret and Repair before he regains his public’s trust .
For older articles about lying in public, see It’s not a lie, if YOU believe it and Would You Believe?

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