June 25, 2009

Apologize: The Right Way at the Right Time

by: Dr. Kevin Boully

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is sorry.  Or is he?  He certainly apologized.  To everyone.  A lot of times.   But is he sorry?  Is he remorseful?  Do his constituents and his public audience genuinely believe him? 

“I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends like Tom Davis. I hurt a lot of different folks.  And all I can say is I apologize.”

Others have already analyzed the merits of this apology, but the truth is, “I apologize” (no matter how many times you say it) is not all that Sanford and other transgressors can say – and it isn’t what onlookers and the public might want to hear.  Experience, literature, and sound research [1] prove that social transgressors like Sanford, and more importantly that legal transgressors like Kenneth Lay, Enron, Union Carbide and many other corporate defendants since, have effective alternatives for credibly expressing remorse, accepting responsibility, and gracefully minimizing negative effects.  And they can do it without the boomerang of creating mounds of anger and resentment from jurors and judges who stand in judgment. 


I have already written on jurors’ perceptions and the use of apology in litigation.  Sanford’s apology just reminds us that remorseful communication is too often botched because transgressors fail to understand what the circumstances require, what the audience wants to hear, and how tailored communication marry both together. 

Just a few weeks ago, psychologist Jesse Bering wrote about forgiveness in Scientific American, summarizing recent research that reiterates what we already know:  audience perceptions of various apologies differ based on the circumstances of the transgression. 

The Best Apology Options [2]

Strength of Liability Evidence

Severity of Victim Injury

Best Communication Behavior



Full Apology:

“I’m sorry. I take full responsibility.  I will repair the damage.  I have already begun to reform my behavior, and I won’t commit this transgression again.”



Partial Apology:

“I’m sorry.”

“I apologize.”

A full apology communicates something much different than the simple statement: “I apologize.”  It has remorse.  It takes responsibility and does not deflect or evade.  It offers or actually completes adequate repair.  It acknowledges the need for reform and tells us how change will take place.  Mr. Sanford says he is sorry, and I’m sure he is.  But when he and other transgressors fail to recognize the true circumstances of their transgressions, then fail to realize the right way to apologize under those circumstances, they leave the public feeling dissatisfied and resentful.

Corporate defendants too often make the same mistakes.

[1] For one review, see Boully, K.R. (2007).  “Mea Culpa” in the Courtroom: Apology as a Trial Strategy.  The Jury Expert, Volume 19, Issue 4.  American Society of Trial Consultants.  http://www.persuasionstrategies.com/MeaCulpa_TJE1.pdf

[2] See Robbennolt, J.K. (2003).  Apologies and legal settlement:  An empirical examination.  Michigan Law Review, 102 (3). 

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