I’m Sorry IF I Upset You

Don’t you hate the “IF” in that phrase? It’s like the canned, fake apologies we receive from call center employees reading from a script. Yet we hear “I’m sorry if I upset you” or something just like it over and over again from business colleagues and yes, even friends.

What is an apology?

What is an apology and when should we provide one? A few years ago, I ran across an expert, Lee Taft, a Dallas lawyer also educated in ethics and religion at Harvard Divinity School, and who was recently highlighted in the Dallas Morning News. He takes a holistic approach to dispute resolution, and an apology is at the center. He believes that “if someone is at fault in causing harm, the party causing the injury should offer a fault-admitting apology, an explanation of what happened and reparation.” His five step process, explained on his website, includes: Remorse (experience of sorrow/regret), Explanation, Apology (expression of remorse), Accommodation (reparations) and Lessons Learned.

When I acted as a mediator, I was amazed at how fast an apology led to a settlement. Of course, the lawyers feared that an apology was an admission of responsibility (and it was), but in reality it was more than that. To the person receiving the apology it meant that the person giving it actually felt sincere remorse, and wasn’t going to do “it” again to someone else. That assumes, of course, that it was a sincere apology, pretty much following Lee’s formula, rather than just going through the motions.

More apology on the web

Getting to know Lee got me thinking more deeply about the topic, and I looked into what’s available on the web on apology. Here are some great sites with valuable contributions on the subject: It’s got everything you wanted to know about apologies. A section called “Apology Central” even has pages on “how to apologize” (complete with ads somehow related to apologizing); “Apology Ideas” for sharing ways to apologize; and an “Apology Board” where people can post their apologies for others to learn from.

Those who created this site say they are “a few friends and colleagues who have always been on the lookout for the perfect apology.” They created the site because “we’re human, we tend to screw up on occasion, and we inevitably need to deal with the problem.” They’ve even created an Apology Blog. One of the things I like most about this site is that both the developers and the contributors seem to be into acknowledging the offense that needs an apology, rather than simply making excuses. And they give advice on how to say you’re sorry in a variety of situations. So, next time you mess up, take a look at the How to Say I’m Sorry page. This site devotes a full page to articles about apology in the context of disputes in a variety of legal settings. It was there that I discovered Vivian Scott, who wrote the best titled blog I’ve seen on this topic: “I’m Sorry You’re Such a Crybaby Isn’t Really An Apology”. In fact, I liked the title so much that I called Vivian to learn more. Turns out she authored “Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies” and has other writing to her credit. In “Crybaby” Vivian says that when she “hears an apology laden with sarcastic tones or Ill-chosen words [she tries] to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume the reason he’s delivering such a lousy apology is because he’s uninformed about the must-have attributes of a real one.” Her blog is a must read for the four elements of a real apology. If you ever wanted to know how to write just about anything, take a look at this site. I’ve hyperlinked the apology page, and there’s so much more here.

It’s Personal

I’d like to share an additional perspective on apology. Inspired by numerous encounters with those plastic call center apologies, I’ve suggested to my coaching clients a distinction between the need for an apology (which includes acknowledging what happened and taking responsibility) and the need for simply the acknowledgment and taking responsibility without feeling and expressing remorse. Lee Taft’s apology approach includes: “the party causing the injury” should offer the apology. To me, an “injury” occurs when there is personal harm. I define “personal” pretty broadly – something like when the action we do or words we say have a negative impact on others – their jobs , their finances (like affecting a bonus), their lives, their health, and even their egos. In business, there are things we do that merit apologies, and other things that merit only the acknowledgment and taking responsibility portion of apologies. When there is a need for an apology, follow the advice of the experts and give a complete and sincere one. If not, acknowledge what you did, take responsibility and move on.

If you have anything to add, or other suggestions of where to find great advice for apologies or blogs on the topic, please post!

What Malpractice Suits Teach Us About Trust


New research on how doctors’ apologies can prevent malpractice suits provides an excellent example of the mechanics, and pay-offs, of trust-based professional relationships relevant to any profession.

In a report on this "disarming" approach to malpractice suit prevention, the New York Times basically says that taking responsibility for one’s actions—apologizing when appropriate—beats the heck out of lawyering up. When I say "beats the heck out of," I mean in terms of hard cold cash.

At the University of Michigan Health System, one of the first to experiment with full disclosure, existing claims and lawsuits dropped to 83 in August 2007 from 262 in August 2001, said Richard C. Boothman, the medical center’s chief risk officer.

“Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial,” Mr. Boothman said.

Why? Here’s the plaintiff’s lawyer in a case where the doctor had removed a tumor from the wrong rib:

“She told me that the doctor was completely candid, completely honest, and so frank that she and her husband — usually the husband wants to pound the guy — that all the anger was gone,” Mr. Pritchard said. “His apology helped get the case settled for a lower amount of money.”

This should not be news to readers of Trust Matters. To recount another example, in Surgeons Tone of Voice: a Clue to Malpractice History (Surgery Magazine, July 2002, vol. 132, number 1), Ambady /et al /explored the correlation between communication behavior of physicians and patients’ decisions to sue for malpractice:

Surgeons’ tone of voice in routine visits is associated with malpractice claims history. This is the first study to show clear associations between communication and malpractice in surgeons.

But lest you think this is an unalloyed victory for the forces of trust, relationships and the collaborative way, the poisonous seeds of destruction are just below the surface. The seeds sprout from the motive of apologizing doctors, which leads to the paradox of trust.

If doctors apologize from the heart, quickly, with no aim other than to acknowledge responsibility and redress the situation (and deal with their own conscience), then the results are lower settlements, lower malpractice, better relationships, etc.

But suppose you are apologizing just to get the monetary results.

• The hospital lawyers issue guidelines for apologies.
• Administrators issue suggested language for apologies, vetted by the lawyers.
• Administrators and hospital lawyers lobby for exemption of apologies from any future lawsuits. The logic, I’ll bet, being something like, "Hey, the guy apologized. Why should he then be legally held to be liable? It’s not fair!".
• Doctors get performance ratings based on their rate of apology, good for inclusion in bonus pools.

In other words, the motives of an apology are immediately undercut for the sake of a self-oriented outcome.

  • The apology becomes impure: input is destroyed for the sake of an output.
  • Lowered malpractice costs are no longer a byproduct—they become a goal. All sincerity is lost.
  • And malpractice rates will go up—but with a higher-still level of cynicism.

Before you accuse me of cynicism, look at the legislative response to this research:

To give doctors comfort, 34 states have enacted laws making apologies for medical errors inadmissible in court, said Doug Wojcieszak, founder of The Sorry Works! Coalition, a group that advocates for disclosure. Four states have gone further and protected admissions of culpability. Seven require that patients be notified of serious unanticipated outcomes.

Before they became presidential rivals, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, both Democrats, co-sponsored federal legislation in 2005 that would have made apologies inadmissible.

As always, the paradox of trust is that desirable outcomes only work as byproducts. If you try to engineer the economic byproduct of trust and turn it into a goal, you destroy it.

You actually have to care about the patient / client / customer/ employee.

What a lesson for all of us.