January 20, 2014

Don’t Sully Your ‘Sorry’

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to be stuck in a jam, and much like the George Washington bridge commuters last September, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. At this point, it appears his marathon press conference hasn’t helped. He publicly apologized for the actions of his staff in closing off local traffic to apparently exact political revenge for a local Mayor’s failure to endorse Christie’s reelection for governor. But the speech hasn’t been universally received as an apology. “Christie spoke about how ‘humilitated’ he felt, how ‘sad,’ how ‘disappointed,'” one commentator for Daily Kos noted, “as though HE was the victim of this scandal. He wasn’t.” The Governor’s apology to these observers has been sullied by an appeal to personal victimhood: Most of all, he seems to be sorry he was betrayed by his staff and sorry the whole scandal doesn’t seem to be going away. That tone conflicts with what we might expect in a real expression of remorse. The commentator continued, “A real and sincere apology focuses on the real victims of an event by recognizing what they’ve suffered, not on delivering a self-serving diatribe on how [the speakers], themselves, have been affected.” 

Public non-apologies abound, and there is no shortage of recent examples, from 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan’s apology for “being misled” in what should have been basic journalistic fact-checking on its Benghazi story, to Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s apology (apparently to his employees) for saying “some women’s bodies don’t work” with his company’s yoga-wear products. Then, of course, there is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s apology for using crack cocaine “during one of my drunken stupors.” While the most sensational examples come from the worlds of media and politics, the non-apology is also no stranger to the courtroom. When a party in litigation, a corporate defendant for example, issues an apology, there is a similar temptation to weaken it’s force by embedding it with explanation and excuse. The demands of litigation will often create a need for parties to complicate the simple ‘sorry,’ but trials still need to adapt to the more basic demands of public communication. That is a setting where we expect our sorrys to be unsullied by self-justifying excuses. This post takes a look at a few avoidable apology mistakes in a litigation context. 

Increasing Cynicism Toward Public Apology

We have written on several occasions on the benefits of aplogy in a legal context (see the list at the end of the post). One changing circumstance we may not have fully accounted for, however, is the level of public skepticism toward the public apology itself. There may have been a time when the simple act of apology was surprising and refreshing in a public context. Coming when we instead expected a denial or a defense, the apology caught us by surprise. At this point, it seems that the public relations industry has succeeded in hammering home the message of an apology as an essential step in damage control, and that has bred a genre of public communication in which saying you’re sorry takes on a ritual quality, or is put to dual-purpose in the form of a “yes, but…” kind of explanation. According to a recent Pacific Standard article, “At this point, if someone issues a public apology, they’re probably not actually apologizing.”

What prevents the gesture from seeming genuine is when the apology is conditional (I’m sorry if I caused offense…) or when the apology targets the reaction, and not whatever behavior is causing that reaction (I’m sorry you took it the wrong way…). The apology that is simply a prelude to self-justification is also suspect (I’m sorry…but here is why I still think I’m right…). Those species of non-apology don’t serve the function and don’t gain the benefits of a genuine expression of remorse. “Giving a non-apology,” the Pacific Standard article continues, “is an active refusal to apologize, couched in the language of apology.” Quoting University of Washington professor Ryan Fehr, the article goes on to explain that these non-apologies “push the blame onto the victim, essentially arguing that the whole episode is the victim’s fault for misinterpreting the offender’s actions or being overly sensitive.”

Ways to Mean It (Or Avoid It)

Clearly there are still situations related to litigation where apologies can play an important role. Doctors reporting success from apology-centered responses to lawsuit-bound outcomes provides one important example. But the message of the apology deserves careful thought and should never be reduced to a token or a gesture. Here are a few ideas for keeping the apology real.    

Think About the Response and Not Just the Act.

Don’t think of the apology as just something on the P.R. check-off list (Okay, we’ve apologized…it’s done). Instead, focus on the essential point: How will people, particularly our target audience, take it? It is the reaction and not the gesture that matters. That is a reason why, in a trial context, it makes sense to use a mock trial to assess how an apology comes across: Is it genuine or self-serving? Does it reduce or magnify attention to our weaknesses?  

Avoid the Dual-Purpose Apology

A common factor in nearly all of the examples of non-apologies that fall flat are that the apologizer tries to do too much. They’ll express their responsibility and remorse, and then immediately tack on additional arguments that have nothing to do with apologizing, but only serve to cast doubt on the sincerity of the apology that came before. In a litigation context, an apology is never the only message, unless you’re settling. But it can help to keep at least that moment pure and unsullied. Justify later, but when you’re apologizing, just apologize.  

Know When Not to Apologize

If you are not owning up to bad behavior, then don’t confuse the issue by appearing to apologize. You can express regret for a bad outcome without adding an apology that appears to take responsibility for that outcome. When you’re more certain that your strength lies in defense and not admission, then it is better to avoid anything that sounds like an apology. Some new research even shows that not apologizing can even make you feel stronger (Okimoto, Wenzel, Hendrick, 2013). 

So the bottom line is that, as in all things communication-oriented, it isn’t simple. Reflexive defense isn’t the way to go, but neither is reflexive apology. When you do apologize, do so with an awareness that many insincere apologizers have preceded you, and your fact finders will be looking at you with a skeptical eye. So make sure it is real, and sounds real as well. 

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Other Posts on Apology: 

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Okimoto, T. G., Wenzel, M., & Hedrick, K. (2013). Refusing to apologize can have psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding). European Journal of Social Psychology43(1), 22-31.

Image Credit: /kallu, Flickr Creative Commons

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