Happy New Year!

It seems a little odd to start a new year of blogging (my 11th year) with an apology. I had planned to start posting again in mid-January and life got in the way, and I’m sorry for the unexplained delay. However, I’m beginning on a positive note by recommending an excellent book that I’ve just finished reading – and it just happens to be about apologies.

Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy have been running the site SorryWatch for more than a decade – I first discovered their work through the very entertaining SorryWatch Twitter account. Over the years, they have used SorryWatch to take numerous well-deserved potshots at public apologies that are anything but sincere and substantive. You know the kind –  “mistakes were made” (conveniently not identifying who made the mistakes), “I’m sorry to those I offended” (not sorry for saying or doing something offensive), “I feel terrible about what I did” (thus prioritizing their own suffering over the suffering caused to other people), “I will resign so that we can end these distractions and get back to what we do best” (maybe the “distractions” are pointing out bigger things that need to be fixed?) and so on.

Now Ingall and McCarthy have distilled their years of analysis into Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies.  This book manages the very difficult feat of comprehensively reviewing a body of academic research while still being entertainingly snarky and getting the key points across. I must admit I didn’t expect to be laughing out loud while reading a book about apologies, but I did. Several times. 

On a more serious note, however, the book has some very thought-provoking insights into what makes a good apology. There’s a whole chapter on work-related apologies, and one of the most interesting ideas in that chapter is even when organizational policies and lawyers advise against apologizing for no other reason than liability, an apology often has the opposite effect. That is, if someone screws up in a way that opens up them or their employer to a potential lawsuit, a sincere, meaningful apology can make the person who was wronged feel more conciliatory toward the organization or the person, and thus be less likely to take further action. The person may still have been hurt by the employee’s actions, but the employee or the organization taking responsibility for their wrongdoing and its effects can make a big difference.

I don’t want to steal the book’s thunder by going through all its analyses of the elements of an effective apology  – I want you to read the book – but I do want to mention a few points that really stood out for me.

  • A good apology doesn’t include a request for forgiveness. Ingall and McCarthy say that forgiveness is a gift, and it’s wrong to ask for gifts. Asking for forgiveness puts the responsibility on the person that was wronged to make the situation right, and it’s their choice whether they want to extend forgiveness.
  • Framing an apology with “I did [terrible thing] because I was [angry/sad/drunk/stoned/misinformed]” is the wrong approach. The behaviour and its impact on others are what matters, not what caused the behaviour. (And, as the authors point out, many, many people have bad moods, get high, whatever, without saying terrible things or hurting others.)
  • Similarly, framing an apology with “I feel so bad about what I did” isn’t a good approach either. The person who was wronged is also feeling bad – probably more so than the person who caused the harm. The point of the apology is to make amends for the wrong, and the feelings of the person who caused the harm aren’t the responsibility of the person who was hurt.
  • Apologizing doesn’t make you or your organization look weak. When it’s done sincerely and thoughtfully, it makes you and your organization look attentive, empathetic, and accountable.

There’s lots more to discover – and to think about – in Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. It’s well worth your time and attention at the start of this new year.


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