July 29, 2014

My dictionary shows the first definition of apology as: a statement of acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense. The second definition reads: a formal justification or defense. Huh? Here is the problem, perhaps. If an apology can, at once, express regret but also defend the action, I believe we have a technical difficulty.

Washington Post Outlook Editor Carlos Lozado recently wrote an article about a new book, “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology” by Edwin L. Battistella, a writing teacher at Southern Oregon University. The article excerpts the book’s fascinating look at what makes a good apology and why most public apologies fail. These range from seeming insincere to becoming more offensive than the initial error. While there’s no shortage of mistakes today, there seems to be a great shortage of well-received, genuine apologies and that’s creating quite a PR conundrum and crisis of confidence with familiar people and organizations.

Battistella notes there are several key mistakes that make an apology more of a failure than an honest admission of wrong-doing and regret:

– Accepting responsibility but not actually taking the blame (Remember Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood who apologized for the actions of everyone else on his crew?)

– Apologizing for one small piece of a greater offense (For example, Jimmy Carter who apologized for one sentence in an entire book that some felt was offensive.)

– Apologies that are based on conditions (“If I offended you, then I am sorry…”)

 The author goes on to suggest a successful apology will have three factors:

– The apologizer must name the offense, which shows they truly understand their wrong-doing.

– They must also renounce their actions, making their apology very clear.

– And lastly, a great piece of the apology is the acceptance from the recipient.

Battistella reminds us of some of the recent great apology debacles including L.A. Clippers’ Donald Sterling and Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel. It’s hard to believe anyone sees their apologies as legit – they’ve attempted to separate who they are today from that horrible person who said those things just a few months or short years ago. It’s a great disconnect and it makes their apologies feel insincere.

Of course, I believe it boils down to candor. If, day-to-day, we are practicing honest, respectful straight talk, we are not often in a position to need to apologize. And, when a mistake or offense happens – as they inevitably do – candor in our apology means we are sincere, truthful and honoring in that moment as well.