During the presidential campaign of 2004, when I was being called upon by the press to comment on candidates’ communication styles, I was asked by Lester Holt on his MSNBC program for one suggestion for each candidate. I said that Kerry should tell more stories because when he did that, it made him come alive, which he certainly needed to do more often. For Bush, I suggested that he find a mistake he would be willing to own up to and apologize for it.
At the time, it seemed that it had been a long time since anyone in any position of power had apologized for something. The American public was overdue for some words of contrition from both its political and business leaders. No one was willing to step up, face up and say, “I’m sorry.” This is an issue we, as a society, still grapple with. In my speeches, I discuss apology as one of the most powerful communication tools. Unfortunately, I have to caution my audiences not to look to our business and political leaders as role models. This is too bad, because not only is it is a critical skill, but also a leadership skill that can be remarkably effective, regardless of what position you hold.
When a mistake is made or a personal wrong is committed, the resulting feelings can be ones of anger, hurt and/or betrayal. These reactions result in a diminishment of trust. The hard work of building solid relationships is derailed. People who are mad at each other have difficulty working together. Naturally, business suffers. But a well-timed and sincerely intended apology can defuse such a situation almost instantaneously.
Most of us can empathize with a colleague who has made a mistake. We have a natural tendency to think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” If an attempt is made at apology, we understand the humbling nature of the act and we feel for the apologizer. In addition, it often takes courage to admit a mistake, there is inherent risk, so there may even be feelings of admiration that kick in. During the apology process, the power dynamics of the communication are reversed. The person who felt victimized is now in the position of power and given a choice to accept the apology and move on, or not.
For an apology to have maximum impact, timing is crucial, which is to say, get right to it and don’t let things fester. But apologizing alone is not enough. You must also have some solutions ready. In fact, I usually link apologizing with explaining. That does not mean creating excuses; it means having thought through the problem and attempted to understand where things went awry and how to avert such situations in the future. The goal is for a conversation to take place with the give and take necessary to ensure understanding.
You also have to mean it.
Many people ask me what to do when the situation in question is not their fault. Every situation is different, of course, and I know I may raise a few eyebrows here, but my advice is to not spend time and energy worrying about whose fault the problem really is. The rule of thumb is that if by apologizing, you can get things back on track, then do it. Apologize anyway. It’s often not a question of fault, but of keeping the lines of communication open and running smoothly. If it’s the word itself that rankles, I often suggest substituting the word “regret” for “sorry.” It’s a less emotionally charged word and although it doesn’t have quite the same impact, it may do the trick.
President Bush did not take my advice, of course, although he has taken a few stabs at apology in the last couple of years. They have been mostly ineffective, because he doesn’t seem sincere and he seems to backpedal. Business leaders don’t seem to be racing to apologize either. That doesn’t mean you can’t. Yes, it’s hard. It’s scary. But it works.