Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Rules of Apologizing

This week I am turning over the keyboard to my Partner, Beth Foley. As a fellow communication expert, Beth is an authority on perfecting your apology. Given the news of the week, what better time to work on the art of apologizing.
- Until the next time, Theresa

It’s really not that surprising that a “powerful” man found himself in the arms of a prostitute. Or, that the high moral leader of the State got caught with his pants down. Let’s face it, none of us gets to sit in the superior chair forever.

When humans fall from grace, and we all do, we offer an apology to those we have let down or harmed. It’s a universal olive branch. So the fact that Eliot Spitzer held a press conference to apologize is not really surprising either.

Mr. Spitzer offered an ambiguous apology. That’s not surprising either. Highly intelligent, even sincerely sorry, people deliver botched apologies all the time. They start off going in the right direction and then plummet into arrogance. Sometimes they just get off on the wrong foot from the get go. Thing is – if you get the apology wrong, you may actually do more harm than if you had just stayed silent and looked humble. Case in point: Mel Gibson.

Where were his advisors? Why did no one give him feedback to keep the apology on track? Is the accomplished lawyer and politician not a communication pro after all? Apparently not when it comes to apologizing. But then again, who amongst us is good at apologizing? Spitzer was emotional and embarassed - not familiar territory for him.

Believe it or not, academia has dedicated quite a bit of time to the subject of apologizing. So, in the unlikely event you take a tumble from the superior chair here is state-of-the-art advice on how to give an effective apology. Leaving out any of the seven steps below renders an apology ineffective and depending on which step you skip, offensive.

1. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Applause goes to Mr. Spitzer for not focusing on himself. Except for a brief moment of telling us how he let himself down, he avoided this common trap.

2. Acknowledge what you did wrong.
This most important step of the apology was left out. Mr. Spitzer could not even bring himself to utter the word prostitute, let alone acknowledge his transgressions. Your audience wants to make sure you really "get it."

3. Take responsibility for your actions.
Although Mr. Spitzer did acknowledge that he had violated his own sense of values, he did not take responsibility for his actions, so the apology was not complete.

4. Acknowledge the impact your actions had on others.
Spitzer admitted to “disappointing” those who trusted him, like his family, but he did this in a vague fashion. Time will tell how the vagueness of his acknowledgement plays.

5. Apologize for having caused pain or done damage.
Here again, it seemed clear Mr. Spitzer was embarrassed as he talked about having to repair his relationship with his family, yet he did not offer much to his constituents or fellow crusaders. Other than to position his actions as a “personal” matter, he did not offer much to those other than his family.

6. Do not make excuses.
Mr. Spitzer wisely stayed clear of excuses and “yea, buts…”

7. Repair the damage: offer restitution and state your future intentions.
Apparently, Mr. Spitzer has staged a sequel wherein he will discuss this last rule of apologies. I must admit I’ve not seen a two-part apology and it’s not reported anywhere in the literature that I am aware of. We shall all have to wait in anticipation for the Spitzer Apology Part II.

Spitzer could have learned from Hugh Grant, who found himself in a similar situation. Sincerity and plain speaking go a long way. In an interview with Jay Leno, Grant proclaimed “I could accept some of the things that people have explained, 'stress,' 'pressure,' 'loneliness' - that that was the reason. But that would be false. In the end you have to come clean and say 'I did something dishonorable, shabby and goatish.'" Being a governor is different than being a movie star, but Grant's apology worked. He was the butt of a few jokes and he's been able to get on with his life.

If you’re not quite ready to pony up a full apology there’s always the old school crisis management technique: Deny Deny Deny!

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Anonymous said...

Great post and saw your appearance on CBS. Very impressive!

Theresa Zagnoli said...

Well I always like to be agreed with.