ApologizeYou may have heard: Toronto mayor Rob Ford recently apologized for smoking crack. His apologies are fun to watch. You know he’s faking, and he’s so brazen you almost root for him. His mouth is making the word “sorry” while his brain is thinking: yeah, I smoked it, so what? Get off my back. You all in the press corps ought to try it; you might loosen up. It’s not like Toronto’s going to become the Third World. The thing practically runs itself.
His mouth keeps saying “sorry.” His heart meanwhile, is quoting our American crack smoking mayor, the pioneer of the art: “bitch set me up.”
Well we’re all Rob Ford. We may all not fire up rock cocaine after fourteen tall scotches while running a major North American city. But we’re all fake apologizers. And it’s killing our trust, our relationships, in life and in business.
It starts early. Think back to when you were a kid. You got caught, for something. You blew off homework; you punched another kid, something. Nowadays it must be looking at porn, sexting— thank Jehovah I don’t have kids. Whatever it was, you got caught. And even though you were just doing something that came to you naturally– you might get punished. And maybe you could get out if it, if you said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m truly sorry I punched him, mom. I understand now that violence is never the answer. It won’t happen again.” Your mouth is making these words while your brain is thinking: he came after me first, what was I supposed to do? But you knew the game. You apologized, so you wouldn’t be in trouble anymore. And the next time the kid came at you, POW!
And it’s still that way now. You apologize so you won’t be in trouble anymore. To get your spouse off your back. To make your friend stop being mad. You apologize to your boss because you’re scared of her. To your client because you’re scared of losing him. Inside, you’re thinking: how dare he expect an apology. I did the best I could. I’m owed an apology for this apology!
In business, we call the contracts, service level agreements, conditions of sale. Then there is breach. What happens when you do something wrong. We all know that means money out of our pocket. Ahh, is that what an apology is for. Ought we pay it back with money. Good idea.
Well, we’re grown-up now. Trying to be, at least. So, let’s take the apology back and make it mean something again. Let’s kill the apology that it might live. We’re going to do this by making every apology we ever make from this moment forward absolutely meaningful and real. But how, you say? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at what an apology should be.
1. You have to mean it
I got to spend time with Ram Dass in 2013. Words can’t quite convey the experience. Walking away from our talk I felt a little like I’d eaten two solid hits of LSD. Don’t speak to Ram Dass and drive. But his insights are mind blowing. The way a picture paints a thousand words, his words paint a thousand pictures.
Here’s the short version: aspire to feel unconditional love for all human beings. If you’ve done that already, you can stop reading. I don’t know why you’re on the Internet in the first place, frankly.
Feel unconditional love for all human beings. OK, I asked him. How. In three easy steps. He looked surprised. Told me I was the first person who’d ever asked to give them steps. It starts, he said, when someone does something bad to you. Instead of feeling anger towards them, try to understand: what experiences they may have had that made them do that thing. Empathy. Consider the source. Feel compassion for their orientation. I will draw out the next two steps in a future post.
Understand the other person’s frame of reference. When somebody tells you screwed up, you feel chastised. Your instinct is to make excuses, to place blame elsewhere. You’ve had this hammered into you from years of slights, of being around jerks, getting wrongly blamed– you have the armor. A defense mechanism that tells you: I’ll go ahead and say I’m sorry, but he threw the first punch.
Let all of that go.
Let all of that go and when someone tells you screwed up, just think for a second. Where is this person coming from? What if he’s right? It’s hard to do this. It’s especially hard if the person doesn’t have empathy himself, if he’s a bad communicator, if he’s constantly telling you screw up. But try anyway. What frame of reference is he coming from? And even if you conclude that you didn’t really does anything wrong– his frame of reference that you did is just as real. All that matters is that you understand this.
Before you apologize, get there. Get to where you can understand where the other person is coming from. It’s the only way you can know what you’re really apologizing for.
2. The other person has to know that you mean it. Make this happen by promising action.
Leo Buscaglia said: love can only be received, not given. What he meant was: you can feel love for someone, but if they don’t feel loved, it’s meaningless. A tree falling in the forest. It’s the same with an apology. We’re forced to apologize so much, for so little, that every apology is expected to be fake now.
How do you do this? Well, if you followed step one, it ought to happen naturally. We make so many bullshit apologies and we hear so many bullshit apologies– if you make the one truthful apology, it’ll be like a spear of sunlight through the clouds.
Apologize – But more practically:
Express that you know what you screwed up, and tell the person what you’re about to do to fix it.The way to make an apology feel real is a promise of action. Important: don’t then screw up this promised action. You’ll have to apologize again.