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The Art of the Apology

Posted by Vakul Kumar More on February 7, 2008


Over the last few years, I have seen many people from different countries apologizing in different ways.  Some of them were done right and enhanced both reputations and relationships. Some went seriously wrong and compounded the original mistake leading to disastrous consequences.

Sometimes, even if an apology is offered, it may be unrecognizable as such because the embarrassment or anger of the person giving the apology distorts it. This can be a disastrous mistake; credibility, once lost, is very hard to gain back.

Most of us in some or other instance would have apologized and were taught that offering an apology, will take care of most offenses. But offering the right apology is not as simple as saying, “I’m sorry” which some people opt for more often.  An effective apology can reassure that the transgression is understood and not likely to be repeated.

I have also seen people lashing out others in front of the group, sarcastically questioning intelligence and commitment in difficult times. When the offender is embarrassed and worried about losing face, sidestepping comes into action. But, in my opinion, offering an apology is not a sign of weakness, nor does it amount to backing down. On the contrary, offering an apology can be a potent reputation enhancer.

Apologies involve three elements: Acknowledgment of a fault or an offense, regret for it, and responsibility for the offense. Instead of getting caught up in blame, I have seen instances where people acknowledge another’s anger or dismay, or regret an offense, even when they don’t feel responsible for a wrong.

Do’s and don’ts

1 Find words that are clear and accurate—not provocative. A good apology should make the person wronged think, “Yes, she understands.” Often what the offended person wants is accountability and vigilance; he wants to know that it won’t happen again.

2 Don’t apologize for the wrong thing. People and institutions tend to apologize for what they find forgivable. If there is no clear relationship between what the offender is apologizing for and what the offended experienced as the original wrong, the apology actually exacerbates the problem. At best, the offender will seem blind to the problem; at worst, he will be perceived as intentionally distorting it.

That gives the offended two problems: The original offense, and the sense that a similar offense is likely to occur. The offended party thinks, “How can I accept this apology? It makes me appear to be complicit in allowing the problem to happen again.”

3 Consider the angle of approach. Decide whether it will be easier for you to apologize position to position or person to person. A person-to-person apology is easier to offer. For someone who equates an apology with loss of stature, for instance, the person-to-person apology can appear to be a magnanimous act that does not diminish her.

Choose the approach that is easier for you to do well. That will save you from making an apology that is so grudging that it fails.

4 Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, your goal should be actually communicating your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person. Expression is one-sided—as though one were getting an apology off one’s chest. Communication, however, occurs between people, and an apology needs to work well for the other person to be effective.

Take the focus off yourself, and keep it on your counterpart and the three elements of an apology—acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. That protects you from sounding defensive, and your apology will be better received.

5 “I want to apologize” is not an apology. It’s no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Do the work. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness, circumlocution.

You may not be able to control whether your apology is accepted, but you can control its quality. So make every effort to control what you can. This will increase your chances of feeling good about what you have done with your apology—instead of feeling bad about having to do it.

Source: Most of my ideas are from an article in www.Portfolio.com. Some of the sentences are straight from the article as I am not able to find better way of presenting.

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