Dispute Resolution Professor John Potter offers tips on how to give an effective apology.
Dallas Morning News by Leslie Barker Garcia
Few of us (and that’s being generous) will ever present an Academy Award for best picture. Even fewer will muddle the name on the top-secret card, as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway did in Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony.
But we’ve all had plenty of mortifying moments we wish we could take back, or that make us wish we could slink out the door under the red (or shag; we don’t care) carpet. They’re part of life; they’re part of being human. We make mistakes that we can neither erase nor go back in time to do differently.
What we can do is apologize. But we need to do that correctly so we don’t find ourselves apologizing for the apology.
Potter takes issue with two aspects of the following statement issued Monday morning by Price Waterhouse Coopers, which oversees the nominations:
“We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.”
The first part that waves a red flag to Potter is the word “sincerely.”
“I would never allow a client to use the word ‘sincerely,’ ” he says. “What you want to know is that I’m sorry. You don’t need the drama.”
In other words, skip the modifiers. Sorry is sorry.
Second, he takes issue with Price Waterhouse Coopers merely promising it will investigate what happened. Were he coaching the company, he says, he’d say, “We’re going to investigate, and on this day we’ll hold a press conference or issue a report.
“Not fuzzy-wuzzy-we’re-going-to-get-a-Ouija-board,” he says. “When you’re not specific in the remedy” — more about that apology step later — “people will look at that and go, ‘I know what they’re going to do; they’re going to hide it under a rock.’ ”
Here’s what he calls “the easiest rubric to talk about apology,” a.k.a. the five Rs to a good “I’m sorry.”
“If I have offended you, there’s a right time to apologize,” he says. “Too soon, there’s too much emotion, so no one listens. Or too late, you’ve formulated a story by then that I can’t break through.”
“It needs to be sincere,” Potter says. But people aren’t always, “and then wonder why the apology is rejected or the person receiving the apology is suspicious. Well, they should be, because it doesn’t match up.
“If I ding your car and say, ‘Hey, I’m awesomely, sincerely, sorrier than I’ve ever been before,’ the words don’t match the event. In the Oscars thing, all that happened was that someone misread the card and someone was disappointed and that lasted five minutes.”
“If you’re responsible, say so,” he says. “You don’t blame it on the person who handed you the envelope. You just don’t do that. What that says is that you’re avoiding responsibility. You’re self-justifying; you’re putting it on someone else.”
“What are you going to do about it? In 2017, remedy is really important. There are so many public apologies, they’ve lost their luster. You rarely see the remedy.”
Look at the problem together, Potter says. “That takes away all the thunder, all the lightning, all the saber rattling. It’s a principled way to communicate with someone. It goes back to the cornerstone idea of apologizing: The apology is for them, not you.
“People apologize for what they think they want to say, as opposed to what the person they’re apologizing to wants to hear.”
So saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way” shows no remorse. It’s dismissive, he says; “it’s all about me.”
One more thing: The worst thing you can do, he says, “is repeat your apologies. You want to get it right that first time, and then let it go. Leave it alone.”
So if, for example, you send an email that says “my boss is a jerk,” and it goes not only to your intended recipient, but to your boss, Potter recommends saying this: “I wrote that email in a fit of anger and that’s not me. I’m not an angry person, but I was angry and I was wrong. If I had something to say to you or about you, I should have waited until my better self engaged with this. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
And leave it at that. The next day, don’t tell your boss you couldn’t sleep. Just let it go.