“Sorry” Can Be the Hardest Word

I’m sorry to admit this, but I’m not perfect.  Actually, nobody is perfect.  Maybe that is why most people are involved in or at least read about an apology every day.  I would guess that the concept of an apology partially stems from the fact that human beings are not perfect.  As simple as it sounds to make an apology, it can be complicated, easily botched or done poorly. 

There are times when an apology for something is needed, but is not sincere. 

A good example of this would be calling in sick to work on the Third of July to extend your Fourth of July weekend (not that I would ever do that).   I can just hear the phone call:  “{coughing and then saying in your best scratchy voice} Hi boss, I am so sorry I can barely get out of bed today.  There is no way I can make it in.  I would hate to get you sick.”  Meanwhile you are lathered up in suntan lotion about to start your bean bag toss tournament.  This is a fairly harmless bad apology, and most bosses probably expect it at some level.

 There are other times that an apology is not only insincere, but makes a person look worse.  My favorite example of this involves the Laker’s Kobe Bryant in 2004 after sexual assault charges against him were dropped (this is only part of the apology):

 “First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo.

“I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

I apologize for the long quote here, but there are so many flaws in this apology that I couldn’t help myself.  A good apology should consist of three basic elements: acknowledgement, regret and responsibility.  When you read this “apology” there really is none of that, except maybe a shred of regret.  In some ways, the wording of this apology is laughable.  One of the first points Kobe makes is how difficult the situation has been for him.  As hollow as that is for an apology, his statement that he does not agree with her on what happened makes the previous statement seem as solid as granite.  It’s as if he really wants to say, “I am sorry for having to say I’m sorry.”

As important as the words of the apology are, the body language is equally as important.  I am sorry for picking on athletes and their apologies, but it is just so easy to find examples of bad apologies from them.  There was a recent apology from Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He was accused of sexual assault (the charges were dropped).  In his apology about the incident, he read from a note card, barely looked up or made any eye contact.  He never acknowledged what he was apologizing for.  The way he read his “heart felt apology” made it seem as if it was written for him by someone else.  Ben seemed more like the little kid who gets in trouble and is forced to apologize and does so looking down and angry, kicking the dirt and saying, “Sorry!”

A good apology requires eye contact, a contrite tone and expression, and at least some effort of using your own words.  It would have been more sincere if he had at least tried to memorize the statement.  My guess is that if he was really sorry about what allegedly happened he wouldn’t have needed to prepare something for it and would have been able to acknowledge it, show his remorse or regret for it and taken full responsibility.  I suppose, however, he would have been admitting guilt to sexual assault if he had apologized well.  We’ll never know what really happened in that situation any way.

A lot of times, the necessity to apologize can be avoided by simply behaving well, but there are times that it cannot.  Apologizing is not rocket science but it can be a challenge to construct a good apology.  It is important to understand how to apologize well because, I am sorry to say, we will all need to apologize for things at some point for some reason.  You might as well be ready to do it so that you can save face and your integrity, keep people’s trust and respect and move on with your life.

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