March 3, 2011

The Key to the Defendant Apology: Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say

By: Dr. Kevin Boully –

5299579966_846d4cb9ea (1)



Google “public apology” and watch the results pile up.  Within the last 24 hours a famous clothing designer, a city councilman, a Boston nightclub and countless others have issued apologies for their varied transgressions.  We’ve covered this territory in previous posts.  We’ve even laid out a pretty simple description of what constitutes a complete apology that recipients and third parties (and jurors!) are likely to perceive as sincere. So why are we talking about apology again? Is it truly pie-in-the-sky to expect jurors to accept Defendant apologies?

Two recent studies shed light on the vicious cycle of apology and increasing skepticism on the part of the jury-eligible public.  One study from Psychological Science examined reactions to betrayals of trust by asking some of the betrayed to evaluate an imagined apology and others to evaluate actual apologies for the betrayal.  Researchers found that people who imagined an apology were more satisfied than those who actually received them.  A recent post from Scientific American highlights the finding that our expectations of apology may indeed be pie-in-the-sky. 

Should litigants who have clearly done wrong continue to offer apologies?  Absolutely – litigant-transgressors must continue to apologize, but more than ever must do so by accessing and communicating from the pulse of the genuine emotion that fuels apologetic communication: sincere remorse.

Public apologies pervading the internet world contribute the American public’s skepticism and doubt.  Why is it so hard to genuinely apologize?  A recent study digs even deeper into perceptions of remorse by evaluating the facial, verbal, and nonverbal behaviors that accompany sincere versus fake remorse.  Researchers found communicators faking remorse showed a greater range of emotional expressions, more extreme emotional swings, and more speech hesitations while offering apologies.  Third party observers, whether jurors or the onlooking public, discount apologies based on beliefs of insincerity, disingenuousness, alternative motivations, or other cues to deception that trigger skepticism and doubt.  They look for the cues that researchers were able to measure.

People expect more than they are getting from apologies.  And they can indeed detect fakers when they see them.  Here are two keys to sincerely communicating remorse to the jury-eligible public.

1)  Select the right individual to serve as your mouthpiece.  Given the need to demonstrate sincere and meaningful remorse, find and speak from the genuine emotion within your leaders or find it in the individuals who are most affected by the transgression and honestly examine their remorse for conduct that is personally detrimental.  These may be lower-level employees, common constituents, or other individuals vested in the success of the company who also feel deeply it’s mistakes.

2) Mean what you say.  There are four Rs to a complete apology (remorse, responsibility, repair, reform), but when you cannot sincerely communicate them all, most will recognize it as a fake.  Start with your sincere reactions and mold your communication into a complete apology instead of assuming your communication will contain all four Rs and engineering them without a genuine source.


ResearchBlogging.orgTen Brinke L, Macdonald S, Porter S, & O’Connor B (2011). Crocodile Tears: Facial, Verbal and Body Language Behaviours Associated with Genuine and Fabricated Remorse. Law and human behavior PMID: 21301943



Image Credit:  butupa, Flickr Creative Commons

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...