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effective apologymending fences, building bridges, and restoring trust
By JOHN KADOR
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 John Kador
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe age of apology
In October 2007, the track and field sensation Marion Jones— who won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney—made a startling revelation. Jones admitted that she took performance-enhancing steroids, and that she had lied when she previously denied steroid use in statements to the press, to various sports agencies, and—most significantly—to two grand juries. She apologized on the steps of the U.S. District Court in White Plains, New York:
It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust. I want all of you to know that today I plead guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal agents.
Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I have done.
To you, my fans, including my young supporters, the United States Track and Field Association, my closest friends, my attorneys, and the most classy family a person could ever hope for—namely my mother, my husband, my children, my brother and his family, my uncle, and the rest of my extended family: I want you to know that I have been dishonest. And you have the right to be angry with me.
I have let them down. I have let my country down. And I have let myself down. I recognize that by saying that I'm deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and the hurt that I have caused you. Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.
Having said this, and because of my actions, I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport which I deeply love. I promise that these events will be used to make the lives of many people improve; that by making the wrong choices and bad decisions can be disastrous.
This glimpse into a private tragedy played out on an international stage demonstrates the power and the limits of apology. Jones had violated a number of ethical and legal norms and then lied about it. To her credit, the apology she crafted for her family and fans is a textbook example of an effective apology. In her apology, Jones specified what she did wrong ("making false statements to federal prosecutors"), took personal responsibility ("I am responsible fully for my actions"), expressed remorse ("by saying that I'm deeply sorry"), offered restitution ("I am retiring from the sport of track and field"), and promised to learn from the incident ("I promise that these events will be used to make the lives of many people improve").
Apology isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. Jones was sentenced to six months in prison and her track and field career is ruined. So why did she apologize? What did it get her? Why should anyone admit mistakes and put themselves in situations likely to be difficult and humiliating at best and risky at worst? Apology is difficult for everyone, but the stakes are higher for celebrities and leaders. If apologizing signals weakness and vulnerability, why should leaders ever apologize? Leaders are expected to be strong and competent. If leaders admit mistakes, will it rattle their followers, making matters even worse? What becomes of a leader's individual and institutional reputations if he or she apologizes?
In this book, we'll explore how to overcome the difficulties of apologizing and affirm why practicing confident apology is in our self-interest. Apologizing makes many people so uncomfortable that they either avoid apology or apologize badly. This is a double liability, because the ability to apologize effectively is critical in today's interconnected, high-velocity world. Just a few years ago, the mistakes we made were generally limited to a handful of people in a small part of the world and quickly faded. But today, thanks to digital video cameras and platforms such as YouTube, the mistakes we make may become instantly available for consumption around the globe and preserved for as long as media and memory survive.
What Is Apology?
Apology is the practice of extending ourselves because we value the relationship more than we value the need to be right. Effective apology is not about the situation that prompted it, but about the relationship that requires it. I will have more to say about what apology is, but for now I want to emphasize its healing qualities. The purpose of apology is to mend what deserves to be mended. In operational terms, three attributes give apology its healing capability:
First, apology is a practice. Apology is a disposition to act; it is something you can observe and measure. Apology may start as a feeling, a desire to make matters right, but apology requires a commitment to move that desire into practice, to actually take on the great courageous task of showing compassion to others. It's something that we do in the context of a relationship. It's an observable dynamic that a wrongdoer shares with the wronged. An intention to apologize is a start, but it's not apology until you actually do it. If the experience is internal or through an intermediary, what you have is confession. Confession is good, but it's not apology.
Second, apology requires us to extend ourselves, to stretch toward something bigger than us, in the service of a relationship. As we contemplate the apology, that something may be unresolved, but we apologize anyway. We are aware that extending ourselves demands vulnerability. It requires tolerance and sacrifice. Sometimes, as we will see, apology is costly, although by no means as costly as the alternative of lying or denial. Most of all, apology demands that we extend ourselves by actually doing something. We cannot talk our way out of situations we acted our way into.
Third, apology challenges us to be humble. Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves; it means thinking of ourselves less often. In the context of apology, humility means we engage the person we mistreated as essential to our own well-being. The offender finds that by being willing to treat the victim as an equal, he or she becomes more authentic. The willingness to embrace our humility provides us with excellent grounds for forgiveness.
Now we are ready for the definition of apology:
We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offence or grievance and express remorse in a direct, personal, and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.
If you're going to apologize, you may as well do it completely. Half apologies only make things worse. This book encourages what I call wholehearted apology—unapologetic apology, if you will. Wholehearted apology is not easy to define (I give examples in Chapter 11), but when you are the recipient of such an apology, you know it. Wholehearted apology is inherently satisfying. At its core, wholehearted apology requires a commitment: to place more value on the repair of a relationship you have strained than you place on the need to be right.
Wholehearted apology emphasizes compassion for the victim rather than redemption. That means you are grounded in the experience of the other person. You accept responsibility for the consequences of your hurtful words, attitudes, and behaviors. Your authentically remorseful statements are free of self-loathing and a self-centered preoccupation with guilt. Your focus is not on a mission of personal redemption (although that might come) nor of moral or opportunistic advantage. For one instant, you abandon all formulas, answers, beliefs, expectations, and efforts to achieve a predetermined outcome. What remains is self-awareness.
Wholehearted apology doesn't rationalize, defend, or mitigate. It specifies what the offender did wrong and accepts moral responsibility. It expresses regret for the conduct, using direct words such as "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." It also includes meaningful restitution and a commitment not to do it again. Wholehearted apology is not a mindless, feel-good exercise that throws us on the mercy of predatory victims. In the long run, it's actually less costly than half-measures or outright refusals to apologize. By apologizing, we align ourselves with reality; we feel better about ourselves and act with more integrity. Apologizing not only helps restore a broken relationship but also reveals possibilities that weren't apparent to the parties before.
Apology Is Both Transactional and Transformational
Apology has transactional and transformational qualities. Apology is transactional in that it restores the balance in a relationship that has been strained by the offense. For example, you are late for an appointment. When you arrive, you apologize to me. I accept your apology. We get down to business and our relationship continues. It's the transactional quality of apology that lubricates society and prevents day-to-day frictions from grinding civilization to a halt. This exchange of apology and forgiveness is a potent and desirable form of conflict resolution that has been embedded in most judicial and religious systems throughout the world.
Apology is also transformational in that it has the power to change the nature of broken relationships so that when they are repaired, they are stronger in a number of dimensions than they were before the breach and apology. For example, you are late for an appointment. When you arrive, you apologize to me. I use your apology as an opportunity to talk to you about other issues in our relationship that I find difficult. You consider my grievances, agree that they are accurate, and apologize for those offenses as well. I accept your more comprehensive apology. As a result of this difficult but rewarding conversation, our relationship is transformed, liberating possibilities that simply weren't accessible to us before.
When you no longer think of apology as a bargaining chip, or as a token to be exchanged for forgiveness or the hope of restoring the situation to exactly as it was, then you are ready to think of it in its transformational sense. Transformational apology calls for a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the wronged party and the inherent value of the relationship.
No apology is equal to the task set before it. No matter how sincere or effective, an apology cannot actually undo the damage the offender has caused. Shattered vases don't suddenly become intact. Nor do shattered relationships. Generous restitution can sometimes restore damaged property or reimburse economic loss, but the victim can never be made whole. The relationship can never go back to what it was before. So why do we assign apology so much value? Because although we admit that an apology cannot undo what has been done, transformational apology can sometimes get close. It does so by redefining the relationship so that the offense becomes part of the foundation for a new relationship. On some level that defies strict rationality, the wrongdoer and the wronged enter into a process that, by a ritual exchange of shame and power, effectively eradicates the wrong and restores the parties to a position from which they can act with unprecedented flexibility. Sometimes you need a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough.
Apology Expresses Empathy
Before we go on, let's take a minute to distinguish empathy from sympathy—because empathy, not sympathy, is what effective apologies should drive for. Sympathetic statements may sound like apologies, but they are often not apologies at all. For example, a statement such as, "I'm sorry that your aunt is in the hospital," is an expression of sympathy. It's a nice thing to say, but it's not an apology unless you are responsible for putting my aunt in the hospital. Apologies may express sympathy ("I'm sorry I stood you up; I know how painful that is, because I've been stood up many times myself") but when they do, they often become more about the offender than about the victim.
The point is for the offender to be clear whose pain matters. In an effective apology, it's the victim's pain that matters. The offender sympathizes with the victim when the offender suffers with the victim. When the offender is sympathetic to a victim, the offender implies that his or her sympathy is shared with the victim, as if the pain belonged to both parties. Sympathy is the offender's feeling what the victim feels through the offender's experience. Empathy is the offender's feeling what the victim feels through the victim's experience. An effective apology requires the detachment that empathy provides. In empathy, offenders "borrow" the victim's experience to observe, feel, and understand them—but not to take it on themselves. By being a participant-observer, offenders come to understand how the victim experiences the offense.
The following examples illustrate the distinction between sympathetic and empathic apologies:
Sympathetic Apology: I'm sorry I lied to you. I've been lied to as well, so I know how bad it feels.
Empathetic Apology: I'm sorry I lied to you. I want to make sure I understand how you experience my betrayal.
Sympathetic Apology: I apologize for losing the cell phone you let me borrow. When I lost my cell phone I felt completely lost.
Empathetic Apology: I apologize for losing the cell phone you let me borrow. There are so many ways this loss can be a problem for you. What are you most concerned about?
In an effective apology, the offender seeks to understand the victim's experience as if the offender were the victim. In a sympathetic apology, the offender experiences feelings on the basis of shared suffering, as if he or she were the victim. Effective apologies tend to be effective because of the quality of empathy they communicate.
What If the Apology Is Insincere?
Can we protect ourselves from fraudulent apologies? I don't know, but I suggest counterfeit apologies may not be as big a problem as some people think. Most victims welcome apologies even when they are suspicious of the offender's sincerity. We expect apologies to be self-serving on some level, but we desire them anyway. Even the most cynical among us are defenseless against the stories we want to hear. Apology is intrinsically satisfying.
For victims who are loath to accept an apology for fear that the offender might not be totally sincere, I can only suggest that we can never be certain of the contents of another's heart. That's why we listen carefully to the apology statement itself, but then focus on the action that follows. An effective apology contains within it the answer to the question, "How am I to be held accountable?" Effective apology is much more than saying "Sorry." The process of apology includes a number of steps that require the offender to consider the consequences of his or her conduct for specific individuals. These steps include engaging the victim in corroborating the factual record of what actually occurred, identifying what the conduct was, accepting responsibility for the conduct, expressing a shared commitment to moral principles that the named conduct violated, offering meaningful restitution, and promising not to do it again. The willingness of an offender to take these steps is the truest test of sincerity. An apology informed is good; an apology performed is better.
I know that many people posture apologies they don't mean for all kinds of reasons. Shouldn't we be wary of these postured apologies, lest we reward opportunistic apologizers? No. I believe that accepting such apologies may be the optimum course we can take. When we respond to a postured apology with acceptance, a curious development sometimes occurs. Offenders frequently dive into apology thinking they can control the process, but the apology process often takes over and controls them. The insincere apologizer is overtaken by the process itself and converted on the way there. The very act of apologizing, sincerely or not, is transformational.
Excerpted from effective apology by JOHN KADOR Copyright © 2009 by John Kador. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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