By Theresa Zagnoli
Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC
Saying " I'm sorry" is tough no matter who you are or what you have done. Because of the personal or corporate fortitude it takes to say sorry, the topic is well covered in recent writings. The discussion no longer seems to address how to apologize; even Wikipedia provides a step-by-step guide on how to say "my bad" with relative ease. It's not shabby either.
If followed, most people will be able to construct a solid apology to a co-worker, spouse, friend or mother-in-law (OK, maybe not mother-in-law) and most others whose body, property, pride, etc. has been injured.
There is also a multitude of research on the necessity, effectiveness and the varying types of apologies.
In fact, my company's work supports the idea that an apology will reduce the occurrence or size of a punitive damage award — if done properly. So, what is the remaining communication conundrum? It appears to be the motive for the apology. If the "I am sorry" is not motivated by remorse or regret for the harm caused, then it will appear to be solely at the bequest of the apologist? Preparation for the apology and the apology itself needs to assess the motive for the action that caused the harm and not simply the action or the harm. "True remorse is never just a regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive." Mignon McLaughlin, "The Neurotic's Notebook," 1960.
Jurors, judges and ordinary folk want to know the "why," which is the motive. Why me, why this way, why did it have to happen, why now, why here and so on.
Thus, to make the remorse or regret feel like it has meaning, the audience needs the answer to the question of why. To help heal the wound that an apology is meant to address, one must play a matching game that gets from the damage caused to the motive of the apologizing entity.
Three-step apology analysis
Step One: Omit or reduce any narcissistic tendencies in the person or persons crafting and delivering the message. (Circa 2010 Tiger Woods.) Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the humblest of them all? That person is your wordsmith. Generally, this is Mistake One, not Step One.
As we are drawn to the most glib and clever way to pry the foot from our mouths, or calm the masses after a disastrous public event, we often forget that is the person most likely to boast and belittle. Give the job of apologizing to the person who can look at those damaged and say, "We hear you, we see you, we feel for what we did to you, we understand what we did and we are truly sorry. Additionally, we have fixed (or intend to fix) the actions that caused the harm so that it will not happen again. If this is not satisfactory and there is another incident, we will make more changes until we have all but eradicated the possibility that anything like this will occur in the future." When you locate the person in your business, firm or family who can deliver a similar message with a true heart, you have found your spokesperson.
Step Two: Work backward. Damage, action, responsibility. What was the damage? What was your action that contributed to the damage?
Be careful — here is where companies, trial teams, laypeople (and especially husbands) begin to wobble a bit. Many good intentions and mitigation efforts have been wasted on apologizing for someone else's actions, feelings or responses to events. Walk away from the Internet or CNN reporting the explosion, indiscretion or financial ruin. Find a big white board or a tiny Post-it note. Match the damage to the actions that you or your company had control of, influenced, ignored, etc. Then move to Step Three.
Step Three: Write down a responsibility for each action.
Damage = Company X lost $1 million?
Action = Company Z found out what Company X was charging and cuts its prices below Company Z's?
Responsibility = To not use information that was stolen from Company X.
Obviously, there is a grand story to go along with this flow of blame. It may take numerous attempts to get to the why. Company Z might end up with something like this as their reason for saying sorry to Company X. "I am going to apologize for not having the rules in place that allowed an employee to steal information that ultimately and unfairly damaged a solid member of my industry."
Why did this even happen? Because Company Z did not police its own people (or whatever the back story turns out to be). Company Z can take responsibility for the action, the damage and state a solution for the future. Company Z can apologize for its action rather than having to apologize for the jobs lost at Company X, which it may or may not have influenced. Most importantly, Company Z will sound authentic.
These three steps are critical to drafting a successful "I am sorry." The absence of any step spells disaster in the mind of any audience.
I invite anyone who would like an apology reviewed to send it in. I also invite you to bring your own communication conundrums for consideration.