April 28, 2016

When Apologizing, You Got a Lot of ‘Splaining To Do

By Dr. Kevin Boully:

Lucy and Desi2
Donald Trump. Does not. Apologize. Even after a raft of behavior that would oblige many public figures to launch a multistage public apology campaign, Mr. Trump stands pat. Pundits and media members call for apologies after comments on a variety of subjects. Many criticize their absence as the clamor goes unanswered. Yet, we cannot deny the rebel appeal in rejecting a cultural norm, especially the now-normalized – researched, categorized, and prescribed – behavior of public apology. While rebellion is part of the appeal, some argue apology weakens a political position, and Mr. Trump is not alone. Comedian Tina Fey recently declared, “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.” Alas, could this be the one and only thing that Donald Trump and Tina Fey share in common?

More seriously, have Americans’ expectations for apology become insufferable? Are demands for apologetic and corrective behavior insatiable? Does genuine apology still have a purpose, particularly in legal disputes? In this post I share two ways to use new research on effective apology in today’s culture so tired of meaningless apology by addressing the known, the new, and the what do you do.

The Known

Our previous work on complete and effective apology and the communication research that informs its application in litigation, articulated four critical pieces of effective apology in litigation – The Four Rs. Past and recent research supports the conclusion that each of these four components is a key piece of an effective apology.

  • Remorse. We are deeply sorry for the harm to the Plaintiffs in this case.
  • Responsibility. We have always strived to make the best and safest products possible, and we take full responsibility for the mistakes we made.
  • Repair. We understand there are consequences for our actions and are willing to make this situation right.
  • Reform. We have already changed our practices and implemented seven additional safety checks, and we intend to see that this never happens again.

The New

Brand new research sheds fresh light on the topic. A recent study (Lewicki, Polin & Lount, 2016) led by researchers at Ohio State University, summarized on Psyblog and Upworthy, considered six components of an apology and asked people to rate the components and combinations that were most effective. The results suggest the addition of two components described below with the researchers concluding that Remorse, Responsibility and Explanation are the three most important components while Requesting Forgiveness is the least critical.

  • Explanation. We had a comprehensive design, testing, and manufacturing protocol and there was a failure in our process. We installed on some vehicles a device that allowed our vehicles to pass EPA tests yet exceed EPA regulations during normal driving conditions. This was a grave mistake.
  • Request Forgiveness. We understand we have to earn back your trust and we ask for your forgiveness as we make our best efforts to regain the loyalty of so many.

The What Do You Do

So what does the research tell us about communicating apology in litigation? Two things.

(1) You Got a Lot of ‘Splaining To Do

Explanation is a critical addition as not only one of the six components that comprised the most effective apologies but one of the three most critical components to any apology. It is not an excuse (which undermines the apology) but an articulation of what happened and why. It matters in litigation because it is this step above all others that allows an opportunity for candor and authenticity that can break through the expectations of a judge, juror, arbitrator or mediator that your apology is just like all the others. Why?

(2) Derive Authenticity From Narrative Specificity

The Explanation step affords an opportunity to demonstrate your genuine feelings through a case-specific articulation of what happened that dovetails directly with your overall case position. This is storytelling (nonfiction, of course) that should not only support your overall position but, within the bounds of reasonable evidence, should also communicate your authentic values that provide your judge, jury, or arbitrator a sense of what makes your case not only persuasive but also redeeming.

So how about the six steps in action, illustrating the power and importance of the explanation:

I’m sorry. America’s apology culture went too far, and we all have some responsibility. It was so important to manage public impressions and protect the image of who we are that we diluted the very thing we were trying to protect. We made apology inauthentic. We won’t let it happen again and in fact, we have fixed it because today apology is unnecessary, improper, a sign of weakness. Please forgive us the last 15 years, America. Please forgive us.


Other Posts on Apology: 


Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. B. (2016). An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research9(2), 177-196.

Photo credit: Lucy Gray, Flickr Creative Commons

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