Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm Sorry: The Art of the Apology

Special Forum guest blogger Rosanne Thomas, certified etiquette and protocol consultant and founder of Boston-based Protocol Advisors, Inc., reflects on non-apology apologies and helps us say we're sorry like a pro.
Where civility is concerned, a bad apology---and we know it when we hear it--is truly worse than no apology at all. The reproachful, "I'm sorry if you were offended." The take-no-personal-blame, "Errors were made." The accusatory, "I'm sorry, but you...." The discounting, "I was only joking!" Politicians, sports figures and entertainers have all been known to issue such non-apologies, and we've probably done so ourselves. Those on the receiving end of these "apologies" feel less than satisfied and rightfully so. The issuer is trying to have it both ways: to go on record as having done the right thing, but to leave wiggle room and save face at the same time. It doesn't work.

Why people shy away from honestly apologizing is a mystery. The sincere apology is an incredibly powerful, yet woefully underused tool. A true apology saves relationships, rights wrongs and shows strength (not weakness). It allows us to be human: to make a mistake, to own up to it and to move on. It also allows others to forgive, a good practice, as inevitably we will all need to be forgiven.

So what are some elements of a good apology?
  • It is delivered as soon as possible, through appropriate means, i.e., via email, telephone call, personal note, in person, through a gift, etc. The seriousness of the breach determines the means: forgetting to return a call is one thing; forgetting to attend a dinner in your honor another entirely.
  • It specifically acknowledges the inconvenience or harm caused, and how this must have made the person feel.
  • It is unequivocal; no ifs, ands or buts about it.
  • It recalls no past grievances.
  • It includes a promise to try and not let it happen again.
Sincere apologies are very likely to accepted, paving the way for stronger relationships and more civil discourse.

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