How to Apologize Like You Mean It

As consumers of news, we all expect certain updates on a daily basis: the weather, sports scores, stocks, your horoscope, etc. Lately though, it seems as though we should be adding one additional item to the daily information buffet: the high-profile apology.

The mea culpa’s du jour just won’t quit: A-Rod seeking a pardon for PED’s, Brian Williams’ contrition over conflation, VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s white lie over being a Green Beret, Kanye turning to Twitter for an about face with Beck and Bruno Mars and E Network’s Giuliana Rancic’s admission that when it comes to her rank in the Fashion Police, she is a mere rookie compared to the late great Commissioner Joan Rivers.

You would think as apologies proliferate, that we would be getting better at them. But too often, when people apologize, they try to wiggle off the hook and shirk responsibility. Or they offer, “I take full responsibility.” That’s just verbal empty calories free of consequences. If you’re going to say “I’m sorry,” don’t make it halfhearted. An insincere apology is a smarmy way to further alienate yourself from the offended party. I’m sure we’ve all cringed upon hearing the classic, “I’m sorry you can’t understand why this isn’t a big deal.” Note to self: a proper apology never points to the other person’s failings.

At some point in all of our careers, we are going to need to craft a pitch perfect apology, and in some rare cases, our very jobs may depend on getting it right. If you are going to fall on your sword, make it one clean thrust. You’ll bleed less that way. “You have every reason to be disappointed in me. I’m disappointed in myself – not my finest hour. Here’s what I plan to do to correct the situation…”

Don’t try to qualify or justify. Don’t point fingers or shift the blame. Don’t apologize for being late because, “My assistant didn’t put it in the calendar.” Don’t drift into TMI (too much information) territory, providing endless detailed explanation nobody wants to hear. Many people falsely assume that delving into the minutiae of what went wrong will somehow make everything OK, but this isn’t the case. The more details you offer, the worse you look and the more you call the authenticity of your apology into question.

Think of an apology as a three-part process:

Part 1: Own the mistake. Say something like, “You are absolutely right. That was completely unacceptable and not the outcome I envisioned. If I were in your shoes I would be annoyed too.”

Part 2: Couch it as the rare exception—not the norm. I recommend to companies that they apologize concisely and unequivocally. But that doesn’t mean that within the apology, you can’t allude to what an aberration the mistake is. Even in the apology you are stating that normally you strive for and/or achieve excellence. So if you get called on the carpet for being late to an important client meeting, try saying to your boss, “you’re right: that was not the signal I wanted to send to the client. I personally find it upsetting because I hold my own promptness in the highest regard.”

Part 3: Forecast a positive result still ahead. It’s vital to pivot to the positive and help the other party see ahead to the eventual good outcome. So if you go to the wrong address for a work event, you might say, “You are right. It’s not the way any of us wanted the day to start,” but right on the heels of that say, “but I guarantee . . . that once I get there we are going to have a banner day.”

That tactic is so important because no matter what the situation, no matter what the mishap, people essentially want to be reassured by a calming, confident voice that everything’s going to be OK.

Bill McGowan
About the author: 

Bill McGowan is the Chief Executive Officer, Clarity Media Group Inc., and the author of “Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time”, published by HarperCollins in 2014.  Bill has been an Anchor and Producer for Dow Jones, CBS News and MSNBC, and has contributed several articles to Follow Mr. McGowan on Twitter.