The fine art of repentance is a skill taught in business schools and promoted by high-priced consultants. But all kinds of offenders in public life still seem to struggle with the execution.
The key to contrition, according to public-relations experts, is projecting sincerity, humanity, and a plain-spoken demeanour — the better to convince a doubtful public. And in this age of social media, anything can go viral with a big audience to back it up, you had better do it fast.
The public apology today is an act of publicity. Many of the public personalities are appealing to their audience not to boycott their product, which, in other words, is the celebrity. Private apologies are different. More often than not, we can assess when someone is sincere by witnessing what she or he does after apologizing. We can see if those who apologize to us have indeed reformed their behaviour. We are not in a position to see that in the case of celebrity apologies.
Most people say “I’m sorry” many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, “No problem.”
But when “I’m sorry” are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.
I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.
After learning that a neighbour who had assaulted me verbally was furious about an oversight I had not known I committed, I wrote a letter in hopes of defusing the hostility. Without offering any excuses, I apologized for my lapse in etiquette and respect. I said I was not asking for or expecting forgiveness, merely that I hoped we could have a civil, if not friendly, relationship going forward, then delivered the letter with a jar of my homemade jam.
Expecting nothing in return, I was greatly relieved when my doorbell rang and the neighbour thanked me warmly for what I had said and done. My relief was palpable. I felt as if I’d not only discarded an enemy but made a new friend, which is indeed how it played out in the days that followed.
Dr. Lerner views apology as “central to health, both physical and emotional. ‘I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language,” she said. “The courage to apologize wisely and well is not just a gift to the injured person, who can then feel soothed and released from obsessive recriminations, bitterness and corrosive anger. It’s also a gift to one’s own health, bestowing self-respect, integrity and maturity — an ability to take a clear-eyed look at how our behaviour affects others and to assume responsibility for acting at another person’s expense.”
Indeed, the best apologies are forthright and succinct, and don't offer any self-rationalization for that behaviour. We need to learn the art and craft of apology.