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:
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, 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.
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)
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:
5. The Minimizer:
6. It’s Mostly Your Fault:
7. Let’s Lie:
8. Only If You Qualify:
9. Blame the Victim:
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:
The Biggest Lessons:
By: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru