Apologies Need to Go Beyond the Word "Sorry"

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Forgive me right off the bat -- that's both an apology and a plea -- but the recent glut of articles and columns about apologies have it all wrong!

The media's focus has been on the symbolism of saying the words "I'm sorry," as if that single utterance means everything and is the only thing. In today's soundbite world that clamors to satisfy the hunger of news consumers, the media pushes the meme that the words "I'm sorry" alone are the end of the story. Some examples:

Lisa Belkin in articles on both her Motherlode blog and in the New York Times Magazine focuses on how to apologize and explores "how well" someone apologizes.

This post by Lauren Frayer is about a BP gaffe that was made during an apology for the oil spill. The BP executive then had to apologize for the blown apology about being sorry ... for the oil spill. Again -- what was the focus? It was on just spitting out the apology.

And even with sincere, appreciated words of contrition, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron's words about Bloody Sunday, the obsession is with how to say an apology and that not enough people give apologies.

I'm going to be a complete contrarian here: we have to stop focusing on who is asking for apologies and who is giving (or not giving) apologies. Instead, we need to focus on what people are doing after they give their apology. Because it is that behavior that matters. Period.

Anyone who has been wronged and desired an apology knows this: we want change. We want people to not do what they did. We didn't want them to do it in the first place and we don't want them to do it again. (People who have been in intimate relationships or are parents know this as well.) As Paul Vitello wrote earlier this year in the op-ed, The Art of the Public Apology,

A trenchant analysis of the issue appeared in The New Yorker last year. It was a cartoon: The woman stands over her shoulder-drooped husband. “I don’t want your apology,” she says. “I want you to be sorry.”

So the real issue in being sorry is, do we hold people to the promise of what it means to have been contrite? Do you? What exactly do we expect of people who express contrition, and what actions would show us that they are sorry?

The way in which we demand the utterance of an apology completely overshadows encouraging the wrongdoers to take action that would show how sorry they are. We let it go at “I’m sorry” and pretend that the ballot box or the television ratings or the ticket booth will do the rest when it comes to accountability.

But that’s not enough. We should be expecting more from people who say they are sorry, and we should be teaching more about how to show that we are sorry. The cliché that action speaks louder than words needs to be rescued from clichedom and pressed into use.

Showing your sorry goes beyond BP's Tony Hayward sitting in Congress and taking it for 90 minutes. It takes more than not getting defensive or making excuses. It takes more than implicitly and explicitly taking responsibility for events that have unfolded, whether or not you were directly in charge simply because you are part of the chain of command.

Even though I believe that apologies do more for the listener, or the one asking for the apology, than they do for the overall healing, in some situations, perhaps, when we insist, "I just want you to say you’re sorry," that is all there is to it. The Freakonimics folks make this argument when they review Kathryn Schulz's new book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

An excerpt from Schultz's book nails why I want to stop the focus on the words "I'm sorry." Rather than give the person who is contrite a chance to change, we beat up on them after they say they're sorry:

Regardless of the issue at hand – whether it’s an oil spill, an economic meltdown, or something far more trivial – when people blow it, we want to hear them say it.

Or so we claim. But how do we really feel when people admit their mistakes? When the person in question is a friend or family member, we all too often choose to rub his or her face in the mistake – while simultaneously exulting in our own rightness. Witness, for instance, the difficulty with which even the well-mannered among us stifle the urge to say “I told you so.” The brilliance of this phrase (or its odiousness, depending on whether you are the one saying it or hearing it) derives from its admirably compact way of pointing out that 1) I was right; 2) you were wrong; and 3) I was right that you were wrong.

So again I ask, what are we supposed to expect from the contrition of those who err? Whether sincere or not, how do we hold them to their word to show whether they are being sincere; that they are, in fact, sorry? (And don't forget - apply this to yourself - what do you do to show you are sorry, in the long run?)

First, we could value "taking it" a little bit more. How have you felt when you've been the one responsible and knew that you could not (and should not) argue against that but rather must own the mistake? It takes a lot, doesn’t it? And yet what encouragement do you -- the wrongdoer -- receive to admit the mistake, correct it and move on? The saying of "sorry" seems to grab all the attention. And it shouldn't.

If we want to foster learning from mistakes, shouldn’t we be giving more recognition to what it takes to be in charge, take responsibility and continue forward, than simply getting off with a well-publicized "I’m sorry" in words only?

Back to the Freakonomics column which notes that the usual treatment of someone who says they’re sorry is far from something that would encourage others to do so:

You cannot in good faith insist that people acknowledge their mistakes if you intend to shower them with moral outrage when they do so.

Resigning or being forced out so that you cannot help right a wrong -- is that really what we should be doing? What about all the times we talk about learning from our mistakes, including the one responsible? What are we teaching our kids, and future leaders -- that you only get to lead if you’re right 100% of the time? Anything less and you should simply apologize and disappear with nothing more to be expected of you, nothing more to accomplish in that arena, no chance to show that you’ve learned a lesson and can implement it?

Why aren't we (and the media) focusing on defining what actions show that you are sorry.

Golfer Tiger Woods apologizes for irresponsible and selfish behavior during his first public statement to a small gathering of reporters and friends at the headquarters of the U.S. PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida,on February 19, 2010. UPI/Eric Gay/Pool

Tiger Woods -- what have you done lately to show that you're changing? (Not much from what I've been watching.)

Joe Barton -- you showing anything for that "You lie!" thing you said you're sorry you spewed?

Eliot Spitzer -- should we be checking in with Silda? Probably not, but still, I certainly wonder how reformed he is, especially in terms of shaming his three daughters.

Imus -- anyone check in on him lately? I haven't, and I haven't seen him in the news at all, other than that he's still on the air doing his thing. Anyone know if he has actually changed?

While we batter them relentlessly for the wrongs, we let them slink off rather than know to expect that we'll be checking in.

There's no better example of how much more important it is what we do after we say we're sorry than the life of Senator Robert Byrd, who died recently. From Jack and Jill Politics:

Those who always bring up Byrd’s membership in the KKK, yes, it gives me pause. But, the man lived a long enough life to show the arc of it. Unlike a Jesse Helms, who, til the bitter end, acted like he longed for the America of slavery and Jim Crow, Robert Byrd had a long enough legislative life for me to believe that he had evolved. That he had gained wisdom for his previous choices, and to believe that he had come to regret those earlier choices.

We want people to actually be sorry -- but we do very little to encourage behavior that would show that. Isn't the real test of someone's remorse whether they change their behavior? Do we, the ones asking for the apology, care enough about that, or are we only about the soundbite and the photo op of catching someone doing bad?

I think my answer is pretty obvious. How about yours?

Jill Writes Like She Talks

In The Arena: Jill Miller Zimon, Pepper Pike City Council Member

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