The 3 elements of a sincere apology

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My husband and I recently finished a major kitchen renovation. While it looks great, there were certainly a few bumps along the way.

Last week, Pete, our contractor, arrived to install two hallway doors. We’d waited a couple of weeks for the doors, and this was the final step to complete the project.

But renovations being what they are, we hit a glitch. Pete made a mistake. Instead of trimming the bottom of one of the doors, he trimmed the top. The door didn’t fit, and we had to order a new door. This delayed the job another couple of weeks.

I arrived home moments after Pete realized his error. His face was white. Sweat beaded on his brow. I thought something truly catastrophic had happened.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking, and I trimmed the wrong end of the door. I can’t believe I made that kind of mistake.”

Peter was genuinely distraught and apologetic for what he had done. After delivering a few more heart-felt mea culpas (and denying my assurances that it wasn’t the end of the world), he drove off to Home Depot to order another door.

Yes, we have to wait a few more weeks for the renovation to be complete, but if that’s the worst thing that happens to me this month, I’ll consider myself lucky.

I tell you this story to illustrate three critical components of a sincere apology.

As a public relations professional, I’m no stranger to corporate missteps and, from time to time, the subsequent efforts of those responsible to dodge accountability. However, I’m amazed at how the non-apology apology—a fake apology—has become de rigueur for corporations and public personalities around the world.

Who doesn’t recall the half-hearted mea culpas of BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010? More recently, soccer’s Luis Suarez underwhelmed with his belated “my bad” for biting an opponent during a match at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Sheryl Sandberg recently joined the ranks with her weak apology for Facebook’s market research study that manipulated Facebook users’ emotions.

Here’s what everyone guilty of the non-apology apology can learn from Pete:

1. Look like you mean it.

If you apologize on television, on YouTube or in person, your body language will speak volumes to your audience. For that reason, it’s essential not only to say you’re sorry, but to look like you mean it.

An important element of conveying sincerity is to look people directly in the eye. On YouTube or at a televised news conference, create the impression of eye contact by looking directly into the camera. If you’re dealing with a tough crisis that threatens your organization, it’s OK (even preferable) to look like you haven’t slept in days.

When Michael McCain apologized on YouTube for Maple Leaf Foods’ listeriosis crisis, he appeared shaken, hadn’t shaved and dressed casually in an open-neck shirt.

In other words, he looked sincere and authentic, just like Pete.

2. Know that what you say matters.

When you apologize, avoid watered-down expressions such as “I deeply regret.” Such statements have become associated with the non-apology apology.

Here’s Monica Lewinsky in the May issue of Vanity Fair:


Of course she deeply regrets what happened. She suffered worldwide humiliation as a result of her affair with President Clinton. Who wouldn’t feel regret?

But Lewinsky doesn’t actually apologize for the hurt she caused others.

You may think it’s clever to sound like you’re apologizing without actually admitting you did anything wrong, but people will see through you and your efforts to redeem yourself will fall flat.

If you want to make a sincere apology, just say “I’m sorry.” They are two simple, yet powerful, words.

3. Follow up.

What you do after your apology is just as important as the apology itself.

Consider Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor. He delivered yet another apology on his return from a two-month stay in rehab. As Elizabeth Renzetti points out in a recent Globe & Mail opinion piece, Mr. Ford “may well be on his way to a gold medal in the Acting Contrite Olympics.”

Let’s give the mayor points for gradually improving his delivery. However, he follows each new apology with a new indiscretion that is followed by another apology. His words have lost all meaning.

You need to reinforce even a sincere apology with an action that indicates you meant what you said. Pete was sorry for his mistake, and he meant it. He couldn’t make his mistake go away, but he could solve the problem by immediately ordering a new door.

Though we may not commit more or worse misdeeds today than in the past, we’re certainly far more likely to get photographed or recorded doing them. If your organization is in the public eye, your offense will be impossible to contain.

For this reason, mastering the techniques involved in making a sincere apology is a critical skill. Learning the difference between a sincere apology and a non-apology apology is a good place to start.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Polaris blog. 

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