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Apology is the Atomic Energy of Empathy


Apology is the toughest, often most dreaded, stressful and easily messed up act of human kindness. We see too many fake rather than sincere apologies.

Apology is Tough

That’s because we have become conditioned to doubt and question first. And that doubt comes in the form of canned questions:

  • Is it really necessary?
  • Isn’t it really an act of weakness and cowardice?
  • How do you know it’s really deserved?
  • Why would we want to set this kind of precedent?
  • Why are you being such a sissy (from peers)?
  • Why are you selling us out (from employees, and perpetrators)?
  • How sure are you that you are not being played for money?

Most management behavior, training, learnings and pressure from peers, colleagues, important people are against being empathetic and especially being apologetic.

And then, there are always the lawyers, we whine, sulk and blame for everything we can’t get done.

Apology is Action

In every form of organization, I can imagine, apology is an act of leadership and compassion composed of a variety of important actions and promises: taking responsibility, contrition, explaining errors, promising changes in behaviors and beliefs, seeking forgiveness, making restitution.

The key to understanding the power of empathy is to recognize that it’s about actions. Most executive and management training, experience, and advice argues against empathy because it is countable, it is measurable, it is metricizeable. An apology specifies actions to be taken and deeds to be accomplished. It leaves a trail.

What is Empathy?

I’ve worked in many cultures in my career, not every culture but many. In every culture, I have worked in there is a philosophic and cultural imperative as expressed in the English phrase, “Actions speak louder than words.”

The Confusion Begins between Sympathy and Empathy.

Sympathy is using a lexicon of warm and fuzzy language to make us appear to care. But most caring statements when analyzed, however warm and fuzzy amount to saying, “I am really glad it’s you, and not me or yours and not mine.”

Empathy is doing good and letting the good speak for itself.

If you define empathy, as I do, as actions rather than words, the power of empathy is that the actions and deeds actually can speak louder than words, if you let them.

The problem for the PR person, the manager seeking cover, or the corporation wanting to look good is the second part of the definition: let the good deeds speak for themselves.

Translation: Take action then Shut Up

Actually, give your good deeds and your empathetic commitments the chance to speak for themselves. Doing something is always more powerful than saying something.

Give empathy a chance and remember the first corollary to doing good and acting empathetically: You will be criticized at first.

Even if your response to a negative situation is literally perfect, someone will find a way to criticize you, your boss, company or product most likely another communicator. Even a perfect response will sometimes elicit the most stupid commentary, “your response or communications weren’t fast enough.”

What does a Perfect Apology look and sound like?

The most constructive structure for apology I’ve seen is in The Five Languages of Apology[1], a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Here, with some paraphrasing and modification based on my experiences, are the ingredients of the perfect apology.

  1. Regret (acknowledgment) – A verbal acknowledgement by the perpetrator that their wrongful behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering, and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  2. Accepting Responsibility (declaration) – An unconditional declarative statement by the perpetrator recognizing their wrongful behavior and acknowledging that there is no excuse for the behavior.
  3. Restitution (penance) – An offer of help or assistance to victims, by the perpetrator; action beyond the words “I’m sorry”; and conduct that assumes the responsibility to make the situation right.
  4. Repentance (humility) – Language by the perpetrator acknowledging that this behavior caused pain and suffering for which he/she is genuinely sorry; language by the perpetrator recognizing that serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage was caused.
  5. Direct Forgiveness Request – “I was wrong, I hurt you, and I ask you to forgive me.”

The most difficult and challenging aspects of apologizing are the admission of having done something hurtful, damaging, or wrong, and to request forgiveness. Skip even one step and it’s a fake apology.

Keep it simple, sensible, constructive, positive, helpful and authentic.

How to avoid apologizing (if you like staying in trouble)

  1. The “I’m More of a Victim Than You” Approach: “This has never happened to us before.” “Why aren’t we getting credit for all the good we do?”

2. The Facebook Defense: Our data sharing as consistent with our privacy policies, a 2011 agreement with the Federal Trade Commission and the company’s pledges to users. We know of of no cases where the information had been misused.

 3. The Bumbler Gambit:  “It was dumb, so forgive me.”

 4. Pre-emptive Self-forgiveness:

  • “It’s an industry problem; we are not the only ones.”
  • “This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last time.”
  • “We couldn’t have known.”
  • “It’s not systemic.”
  • “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”
  • “Don’t our good deeds count for anything?”
  • “No one could have prevented it.”
  • “It’s not as bad as it seems.”

5. The Minimizer:

  • “It’s an isolated incident.”
  • “Let’s not blow this out of proportion.”
  • “It was only one death, in one place, at one time.  Why is everyone so angry?”
  • “Not many were involved.”
  • “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

6. It’s Mostly Your Fault:

  • “It’s not our job.”
  • “It’s not our fault.”
  • “We can’t be responsible for everything.”
  • “It won’t happen again.”
  • “Life can’t exist without risk.”
  • “What’s the harm?”
  • “We’re not responsible.”

7. Let’s Lie:

  • “I don’t know.”
  • “We didn’t know.”
  • “We’ve never done that.”
  • “It hasn’t happened before.”
  • “It can’t happen again.”
  • “We won’t give up without a fight.”
  • “We have never had to apologize before.”
  • “I’m not a crook.”
  • “I did not have sex with that woman.”

8. Only If You Qualify:

  • “I’m not sure if it was an accurate representation.”
  • “I’m sorry if . . .  ”
  1. Any of you were offended.
  2. My words got misinterpreted.
  3. Someone else took my words out of context.
  4. You failed to understand what I said.

9. Blame the Victim:

  • “He’s a disgruntled former employee.”
  • “They didn’t get it right.”
  • “You can’t believe what they say.”
  •  “It couldn’t have been done by our people.”
  • “It’s not our problem.”
  • “They just don’t understand our situation and our problems.”

Once You Hear the Shot, You’ve Already Been Hit

Reminds me of the first cowboy picture I ever saw, I think I was eight years old. I went to movie at the old Alhambra Theatre on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis, a Western with a lot of writing, fighting and shooting.

On the way home, in the car I remember asking my dad how come so many people in the movie got shot. I remember saying something like, “as soon as they heard the shot, they should’ve just jumped out of the bullet’s way.”

I don’t remember what my father had for an answer at the time. But, as we grow up especially suffering our own crises we recognize that the moment you hear the shot, you’ve been shot. Any communicator who complains about the speed of communicating doesn’t know a lot about crises, the role of the perpetrator, the disabling nature of being a victim and the predictable errors leaders make.

Apology is the Most Powerful Response Perpetrators Can Make

Apology is one of the ultimate leadership roles those in charge can have.

My argument to those who are against apology for legal and other practical reasons is simply that everything they say is likely true. But, the power of apology is so great that it overrides all of those hypothetical and negative, but rational, potential consequences.

What is the Question Your Mother Would Ask You?

The question you have to ask after you’ve created victims is, “what kind of organization is it that burns somebody’s house down,” people see it burn on television, but your company’s response is, “what fire?”

If your mother were to ask you something about your company’s stumble, fumble and bungled response, the question would be, “What were you thinking?” And you need an answer because a lot of people especially the victims and survivors are going to be asking that question.

Apology is Free. Empathy is Free.

The costs of avoiding apology and therefore failing to be empathetic are enormous.

In crisis, you learn two things about what it costs:

  1. First, in crisis you’re spending huge sums of money more stupidly than you could possibly ever imagine.
  2. Secondly, the reality is that the checks you write today will be the smallest checks you’ll ever write in settling matters with those whose lives have been adversely affected.
  3. So much time gets wasted trying to dodge, blame shift and deny that once action to respond starts, the criticism for stalling becomes legitimate.
  4. There is no logical, reasonable, sensible or believable excuse for waiting to act. Thus your perfect response technically, will always be known as a fumble, mumble stumble and bungle.

The Biggest Lessons:

  1. Resolution and settlement almost always begin with extremely empathetic comments or better yet apologies. Until this step is undertaken, most crises will ripen badly, and just get worse.
  2. The most common excuse by management for delay in responding is that they were taking time to find the right solution to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. This is a very bad and unbelievable joke. They were trying to save a buck and practicing management’s favorite myth . . . That there was a single solution, doing something once and solving a problem. Never happens.
  3. The most powerful action response in crisis is that speed beats smart, every time.
  4. Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. The moment a sincere apology is offered, bad things start to stop happening.

By: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru

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