Sorry (isn’t always) the hardest word

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Nick Clegg, Jeremy Clarkson, Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Reese Witherspoon, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Prince Harry.  What do they have in common – apart from their celebrity status?

They’ve all, at one time or another, famously apologised.  Indeed, Mr Clegg’s apology was so famous it was turned into the entertaining I’m Sorry Song.

What are you like at apologising?

Some people are terrible at it aren’t they! When they’ve done something wrong, when they’ve under-delivered on a commitment, when they’ve made a mistake, or worse when they’ve been discovered engaged in practices from the slightly dirty to the truly Machiavellian, you can see them squirm in a semi-unconscious drive to avoid hearing themselves say the ‘S’ word they so hate to utter.

Hold dear then those who apologise well. These people reflect, search their depths for the inner drivers that might be at play, and admit their culpability with targeted clarity about what they did wrong. Hold even dearer those who do all these things with laser accuracy, always stopping short of offering an unmeant sorry, even when doing so – in the face of considerable social pressure – would be the easier option.

Apology chart
Lake. C, 2014

However, I don’t think ‘apologising’ sits on a simple spectrum from reluctant to effusive. It’s more complex. So I’ve been playing with a heuristic model to help me understand more.

I’ve met a few people that are genuinely skilful at apologising – a bit too skilful methinks. I used to work with a colleague who was the best I’ve ever met. The first time he did something substandard I steeled my courage and challenged him – his ‘sorry’ was so delightful, so deeply felt and so complete, that he converted me in an instant from disappointed critic to enthusiastic supporter. This happened the second time too. And the third.  Indeed, it took me a few years to see his charming apologies for what they really were – the learned and carefully developed get-out-of-jail-free cards of a more than slightly duplicitous political player. You see, even though most of the time he was good enough at his job, he knew that he could always fall back on his beautifully cultivated regret to let him off the hook. As such, he was charming but untrustworthy, inconsistently reliable yet able to deploy the most lovely apology and winning smile to rescue him from those he wronged. The beautiful delivery of the apology camouflaged its lack of authenticity and hid his dearth of contrition. In short, he’d do exactly the same next time.

Although the character in my story was the über expert apologist, I’ve met others who, although not in his league, are shades of the same colour. I’ve also met some sorrier characters: the bungling pretenders. Some in this group are ignorant of their impact, or apparently unaware of the power and value that a genuine apology can have on a relationship. Others in this category, whilst not blessed with the competence their role demands, are unable or unwilling to come to terms with the transparent fact that they’re not up to the job. Uncomfortably often they find themselves on the wrong side of mess-up, and yet they maintain the sham that all is well because to try otherwise would mean a fairly constant litany of apology.

Then there’s the defended arrogants. These people are generally competent – sometimes very.  However, their self esteem is too tied up with their feelings of competence, and the admittance of error or culpability carries a significant cost to their ego. They confuse contrition with weakness, avoid admitting their errors or shortcomings, and squirm or bite if forced to say ‘mea culpa’. If one of these characters gets truly banged to rights then watch out for the venom in their backlash.

Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), described the field of apology well: ‘Apologies represent the splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathises with the blame giving, and, by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold.’

Genuine performers tend to be as strong in their roles as they are in their personal confidence – it’s this that allows them to hold Goffman’s paradox.  If they fall short of the high standards they expect of themselves then they will offer you a genuine, even unprompted, apology. Their competence is important to them for sure, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. More central is their authenticity. As such, they will apologise for their actions when and where appropriate. They will do some work, often on themselves, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. They will learn – indeed, they’ll view learning as the value to be milked from all such experiences.

So, what are you like with apologies? Where would you put yourself on the model?  I guess a better question might be: where would others put you?  Apologising is a skill – and it’s much more than that too: it’s connected to self esteem, confidence, empathy and eloquence. Either way, like all skills, it’s something we can all improve with practice.  So go on, next time there’s an opportunity, go over to them, look them gently in the eye, and say a genuine ‘I’m sorry.’

2 thoughts on “Sorry (isn’t always) the hardest word

  1. A good read. And thought provoking. So thank you. Or perhaps that should be sorry?! What I find as a trainer working extensively with the NHS is that individuals find themselves constantly apologising for the shortcomings of the health service yet the organisation, not least because of the financial constraints it works under, is unable (and sometimes just unwilling) to change the underlying reasons for those shortcomings. In other words it’s all very well being reflective as a skilled apologist but unless that personal reflection and consequent growth is mirrored by the organisation as a whole it can be all rather pointless.