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An Effective Apology

effectiveapology061843I remember when my elder son was about four or five and learning to say all the wrong things. One day he stomped into my room, ranting a string of expletives about his brother. He stopped mid rant, clapped his hand to his mouth, looked me in the eye and said “I’m sorry, Mom, my mouth was on fire.”

It’s hard to keep a straight face in situations like that.

Today’s agitated world creates situations ripe for effective apologies — from public officials and CEOs, to neighbors and family members — yet we too often find ourselves at a loss for how to give apologies earnestly or accept them graciously. Next time you need to apologize, turn to John Kador’s book and blog.

I had the good fortune of talking to John last summer and have heard him interviewed on this topic. He’ll show you how and why leaders who willingly and skillfully apologize make more money, enjoy longer careers and create stronger relationships than those who don’t.

Until you get your hands on the book, remember the Five Rs of an apology: recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution and repetition.

Prompts for professionals

  • John Kador says that some kinds of apologies make the situation even worse. If you’ve ever perpetrated a harmful apology, how can you turn the situation around? For example, let’s say your client left a trade request on voicemail — something your message reminds them not to do — and their trade wasn’t executed. Did you say something like “I’m sorry you didn’t follow the directions on my voicemail to call my assistant instead of leaving the request on my phone”? I bet that didn’t go over very well because it was a criticism wrapped in the language of apology. Perhaps something like this would be more effective:  “I know you lost money because that trade wasn’t executed. I feel awful about it. If I had received your voicemail in time I would have called you back and perhaps been able to minimize your loss. While I can’t make you whole on this transaction, I can assure you that if you (take this action) in the future, we can get your trade executed on time.”
  • Is there a chance you can break a stalemate with an apology? Something like “Ever since (the event) our relationship has been strained. Although there’s been a lot of water over the bridge since then, I want to acknowledge that if I had it to do over again I would have treated you better. I hope you’ll accept my apology for (ignoring your phone calls/blaming you/etc.). Although I can’t wipe away the past, I’d like to ask if you will give me another chance to work something out. If you do, I promise to (return your calls/refrain from blaming/etc.).”
  • Is there a situation where your company has taken a stand you disagree with and you’re caught between it and a customer? Is there a way you can apologize and accept some of the blame instead of throwing your company under the bus?

About Tamela M. Rich

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From Charlotte, NC, Tamela writes books, articles, speeches and presentations for business professionals. From "the road" she writes about the people, places and experiences she discovers and the life lessons she learns from them. Invite her to share some of her lessons from the road at your next event!

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  • Dasan

    How about “it’s my fault because I didn’t explain the healthcare bill better to the US citizens”?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. But that has to be the lamest apology ever.

    I would also add to your great column to never use the word “but” in an apology. In leadership training I went through many moons ago, they emphasized that if you use the word “but” you negate everything you said before it. For example: “You are really a great writer, but I don’t agree with all of your points” Even though I may literally mean what I say, by using “but” I’m making you think I don’t mean it. Just sayin’

  • Glad you brought up that POTUS quote.

    I saw a quote from Jon Stewart this morning about Mr. Obama that might explain his choice of words in this case: “I can’t tell if he’s a Jedi master playing chess on a three-level board way ahead of us or if this is kicking his ass.”

    I think Mr. Kador might have some thoughts on this quasi-apology. I’ll ask him to weigh in.

    Tam