The Right Apology

The Right Apology

Ramya had to travel to her client’s office in another city as part of work. Her company handled her travel and stay. When Ramya arrived at her hotel, she was shocked to see the hotel’s lack of preparation for her arrival. Her accommodation left a lot to be desired. She complained to her admin department but to her shock they asked her to raise the complaint in an email and explained to her the next steps. Clearly, they were more worried about process than her plight.

Ramya then escalated her problem to her manager and the issue was resolved within an hour’s time. Ramya felt undervalued and left alone in a strange city. Surprisingly, both the hotel and the admin in her company advertise they work towards to the delight of their people.

Ramya’s biggest complaint? “Why could neither the hotel authorities nor the company’s admin department apologize to me?”

Because people like to view themselves as inherently good – compassionate, empathetic and morally engaged. An apology would acknowledge the imperfect version of ourselves that we are not happy acknowledging.

The most difficult parts in an apology are accepting responsibility and letting go.

Accepting Responsibility

By saying sorry you are apologizing for your contribution to a situation —that’s it.

Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Failure to apologize is a lapse of integrity that causes the corrosive destruction of your reputation, and leads people to perceive you as arrogant and callous. Accepting the responsibility of action conveys your sincerity and demonstrates courage.

Letting Go

Forgive and forget is easier said than done. Letting go is a step toward healing. It allows you to avoid seeing others’ actions through your personal filter of right or wrong. As Henry Boys says — “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway.”

In spite of the virtues of an apology, most sorry leave people filled with anger and a simmering sense of injustice.

The wrong sorry

A sorry without regret is a justification of your actions. Without responsibility, it is an excuse.

When it comes to apologizing, only a sincere apology works although the following apologies are often said begrudgingly;

  • A non-apology

Lisa Lutz said “I am sorry you’re angry, is NOT an apology.” Such an apology implies someone’s anger has nothing to do with you and that it’s an apology without accepting responsibility. “I am sorry I made you angry,” will be better welcomed.

  • Justification and blame

Justification in effect is a denial of the apology and therefore the sorry is fake. “I am sorry for the fight, but in my defense, you started it” is blame. Sentences like “Oh! It wasn’t that bad” is deflecting consequence and disregarding the other person’s feelings.

  • Making excuses

A sorry that continues with a “but”, is a heavily watered-down apology and is therefore ineffective. As in the feedback, using the word but negates the apology. Excuses sometimes do look like a rational explanation. The difference lies in the acknowledgement of responsibility. An explanation without accepting the responsibility is an excuse.

  • Repeating the mistake

Even the best-worded apology will be ineffective if the mistake is repeated again. Actions always speak louder than words.

The right sorry

The most constructive structure for an apology is in The Five Languages of Apology, a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. They discovered the five fundamental aspects or the languages of an apology: expressing regret (“I am sorry”), accepting responsibility (“I was wrong”), making restitution (“What can I do to make it right?”), genuinely repenting (“I’ll try not to do that again”), and requesting forgiveness (“Will you please forgive me?”).

Another great structure was by Roy Lewicki of The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, who led the study to identify the main components of an apology. Their team conducted two studies to explore how seven hundred and fifty-five people reacted to apologies, containing one to all six of the components. The list includes: Expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgement of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness.

The most important component was found to be an acknowledgement of responsibility, followed by the offer of repair. The request for forgiveness was noted to be the least important of all the elements. Therefore, a simple ‘I am sorry’ is the least effective of all apologies.

Here, with some paraphrasing and modification based on my experiences, are the ingredients of the perfect apology.

  1. Explanation — Begin with your intention to apologize. This sets the context and the listener becomes receptive to the next words spoken.
  2. Take responsibility — Be specific about what exactly you are apologizing for, so that there are no vague feelings and the declaration of your responsibility is not lost. For example, if you have missed a deadline, be specific about the task and the deadline and not say sorry for your general time management skills.
  3. Express regret — This is a feelings step. True remorse cannot be hidden, and it is essential to be honestly remorseful. All other apologies are fake.
  4. Promise repair — As a logical next step to being responsible, offer your solution to rectify the problem. This brings hope to the situation and during most times, creates acceptance in the minds of the listener.
  5. Request for forgiveness — Finally, this step gives the power back to the listener. While it is not necessary to ask for forgiveness, by putting the ball in their court, you have essentially said that the future is up to them.

About the Author

Dr Latha Vijaybaskar catalyzes positive transformations. As founder and Leadership Coach of V.I.T.A.L Conversations, she works with teams and individuals to enhance productive engagement and positive leadership. Her latest book Masterstrokes – Reinventing Leadership in Uncertain Times can be ordered on Amazon.

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