Last week I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Ford Hatamiya about a leadership development program he’s designing. We talked about practical ways to help organizational leaders behave more empathetically. One idea that didn’t make the cut was to teach leaders how to apologize.
There’s a scene about people’s pent-up need to hear an apology in one of my all-time favorite movies. A Thousand Clowns (1965) stars Jason Robards playing Murray, an iconoclastic comedy writer living in Manhattan. Murray risks losing custody of his nephew if continues to live his unconventional lifestyle. When Murray falls in love with Sandy (Barbara Harris), one of the social workers assigned to his case, he promises her that he’ll get his act together and find a steady job. He interviews for several jobs but can’t bring himself to accept any of them.
Knowing that he will have to explain why he turned down the offers to Sandy, he thinks about how he’ll break the news. When Sandy arrives at Murray’s apartment to cook dinner for him and his nephew, Murray offers Sandy an apology. The apology (1:26) is heartwarming, funny, and creative, but it ultimately misses the mark. In the end, Murray says the words, but doesn’t feel the feelings.
Apologies are not about what happened
Apologies are not about what you did. That’s what explanations are for. Apologies exist to repair damage and reduce harm. Admitting that you made a mistake is helpful. Demonstrating that you understand and feel remorse about the impact of that mistake is transformational.
An apology has the power to shift a relationship. A great apology creates space for generosity and compassion. Apologies bring attention to our vulnerabilities. We are altered by the offer of a heartfelt apology. The expression of the apology invites those we’ve harmed to connect with us more deeply.
Some apologies are designed to quickly reestablish a temporary imbalance. If I step on someone’s toes, the body language and tone of voice accompanying, “I’m sorry,” restores the status quo. The quick, rebalancing apology is the stuff of social norms. Like the how-are-you-I-am-fine exchange, saying “sorry” can feel more like a reflex than a concerted effort to reduce harm.
What the world needs now is More Harm Reduction
A proper apology requires virtuosic empathy. I must sit with my own feelings long enough to distill out extraneous emotions that will undermine the apology. I might feel angry that someone triggered my regrettable behavior. I might feel embarrassed by how I acted. I might feel afraid to acknowledge that I have needs I’m not proud of. All these emotions are useful to reflect on and none of them are about the impact your behavior had on others.
Apologies don’t require you to change your core values or deeply held beliefs. You only need to accept that we should avoid causing unnecessary harm. When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises. Consider David Brook’s ominously titled opinion piece for the New York Times, America is Falling Apart at the Seams (July 13, 2022). In the article, Brooks catalogues the evidence for the headline’s pessimistic claim.
Let’s say I was raised to believe, like many who grew up in the Southern United States, that it’s a sign of respect to refer to people as “sir” or “ma’am.” One day I say, “Thank you, ma’am” to a stranger who holds the elevator door for me. Instead of a smile, I’m met with an icy stare. Maybe the person who held the door takes advantage of our private time in the elevator to tell me, “I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but when you refer to me as ma’am, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t identify as female.”
In the heat of the moment, a dizzying array of feelings might overwhelm me. At best, I might be able to mumble “I apologize,” as I stare at the floor indicator light, silently willing the elevator to speed up. But what happens when I encounter the same person in the elevator the following day?
Should I explain my views on gender identity? Should I minimize the incident by saying that it was just an unconscious reflex, and I didn’t mean anything by it? Should I offer helpful feedback about trying to be less sensitive? No, no, and Hell no.
When I shift my focus from my perspective to the perspective of the person who felt uncomfortable, I create the possibility for learning. I stop seeing the person as wrong and I start seeing the person as different. Again, I’m welcome to hold on to my beliefs about gender and etiquette. But to craft a real apology means legitimizing (not agreeing with) other worldviews. I’m not apologizing to keep the peace with someone I disagree with. I’m apologizing to repair harm. The person held the elevator door for me. I can reciprocate with an apology that opens the door to a new way of relating.
Here’s one version of what I might say the next time we meet:
I thought about what you said when I called you, “ma’am.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to have people invalidate me by relating to me as something I’m not. I’m sorry I did that the other day. It must have been especially maddening since you had just done me a favor. For what it’s worth, you’ve given me a lot to think about.
Too much? Maybe. Also, maybe not enough. All you need to do is find words that make things better for anyone hurt by what happened.
I started this post suggesting that crafting apologies might work as an exercise for leadership development. Even if you don’t say you’re sorry, there are benefits to simply preparing the apology. When you force yourself to articulate someone else’s perspective, you enlarge the boundaries of your tolerance.
Here’s a quick, practical, 4-step guide to apologizing from U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action Website.
Now, let’s all get out there and start apologizing!
Jay G. Cone is the author of The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do; Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos. He is the co-founder of Unstuck Minds.