Apologies Are Overrated. Do This Instead.

February 24, 2015

apologies are overrated

Sooner or later, we all have to own up to a screw-up. It might be something your company or unit did under your watch, or a lapse of your very own. Suddenly you have angry people—customers, clients, partners—on your hands. And your first instinct, once you’ve checked with Legal, is to apologize.

Many experts will say you’re right. But have you noticed how hard it is to apologize effectively? An angry person never seems to find your apologies sincere enough; you never seem to feel awful enough for their satisfaction. As a persuasion consultant with ArgueLab who has helped companies communicate through their mistakes, I’ve come up with four steps every manager should take when things go wrong and people get mad.

1. Listen first.

When dealing one on one with an angry customer or client, let her do most of the talking. If you’re using social media, make sure your social team is dealing one on one with every complaint.

Make it clear you’re taking each individual seriously. The philosopher Aristotle, who literally wrote the book on rhetoric, the art of persuasion, notes that the chief cause of anger is “belittlement”—the feeling of being “dissed,” made to feel unimportant. Many medical malpractice lawsuits stem from belittlement, a patient’s feeling that the doctor didn’t treat him seriously. Belittled people feel “shrunken” by uncaring managers, and they look for some shrinking in return. That’s why an apology never seems enough; only a public shaming rite would do the job.

The good news is, you don’t have to shave your head and wear a hairshirt. Instead…

2. Talk about your or your company’s values—the ones that seem to have been violated in the screw-up.

“We at Good Company Inc. pride ourselves on treating every customer like family. When our servers got overloaded in this latest promotion, we failed to do right by you.”

3. Say how bad this makes you feel.

But take care: the point is not to feel bad about the screw-up, but about the temporary lapse in your values and standards. Say, “This makes us committed all the more to living up to what we stand for.” Your audience may think you’re not really sorry; but it’s harder to discount your feelings about your own standards.

Plus, this approach shifts the focus from the mistake to your standards. Do it right, and your mistake can actually become an opportunity to remind the public what you stand for.

But you’re still not done! Quickly…

4. Switch to the future.

Talk about the fix and how you’ve put “all hands on deck” to set things right. Offer a vision of that fix, and show what steps you’re taking to keep it from happening again. If that’s not realistic, acknowledge that mistakes might happen in the future but that the fix will make them less likely or less harmful.

Some research shows that a properly recovered mistake can actually improve your company’s reputation. In my experience, it can improve yours as well. Now go ahead and screw up; stand proud.

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About The Author

Jay Heinrichs is a persuasion and content consultant, and the head of ArgueLab, a persuasion website. He is the author of the bestselling book Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach You About the Art of Persuasion.

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