4 Keys to Apologies That Matter

I have apologies on my mind.

The island of misfit black girls got me thinking.

Jason Johnson, author, professor, political pundit and the Politics Editor of “The Root,” referred to Bernie Sanders’ African-American spokeswoman as coming from the island of misfit black girls on a podcast last week.

Beware. I’m not writing a political post here. I’m writing about the courage to apologize.

Johnson’s comment went viral and was instantly and routinely condemned. Johnson, himself African-American, apologized via a tweet.

Earlier this week in a conversation about the Sanders campaign and the behavior of his staff I referred to his campaign person as coming from the Island of Misfit Black Girls. It was a harmful and unnecessary comment and I apologize.

Come on dude. Really? On twitter? That’s all you’ve got?

Mike Bloomberg has aggressively thrust himself into the pubic limelight as he seeks to run for president. He, too, comes with a history of behaviors and actions that many folks feel he better apologize for. In a rally in Brooklyn, November 2019, Bloomberg apologized for the Stop-and-Frisk policy he implemented when he was the mayor of New York.

Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. (The New York Times, “When Did Bloomberg Turn Against Stop-and-Frisk? When He Ran for President.” 2/19/2020)

Sounds more thoughtful than Johnson’s twitter apology, right? Is it heartfelt? Huhmmmm. As Maggie Astor points out in her well-researched NY Times article, Bloomberg vehemently defended his policy up until it seemed more politically prudent to apologize. A mere month before he announced his political campaign.

Intention matters. So does context.

Leaders are human. Public figures are human. So are you and I. We err.

The pressure to not make mistakes, to be smart, have answers for everything, fake the knowing, is brutal. We can fake the I’m-a-smart-expert-who’s-in-control part. For a while. We can’t fake the apology part. EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER.

An exquisite apology is a powerful reset point in any relationship. Professional, personal. It gets us to the human truth of events that occurred. It invites the possibility of redemption and a path forward. It unmasks the I-have-it-all-under-control game. It is ultimately liberating for every party involved.

Need to apologize? Here are a few essentials:

1. Choose unequivocal language.

Our choice of language needs to signal full ownership of the apology. No I regretI wish I hadn’t. Cautious words that signal half-hearted remorse. An apology requires an unequivocal verbal cue. I am sorry thatI apologize for. Amplify such cues by adding qualifiers that indicate the depth of your apology. I am so very sorry that. I apologize profusely for. Amplify with language that is authentic to you, not clichéd.

2. Convey understanding.

If your behavior has caused financial, physical or emotional harm to your business or the people you engage with, convey clearly that you are aware of this impact. We want to know that you understand the depth and scope of the damage you have caused – and its impact on people. For us to move forward with you, we need to know that you “get it.” When you don’t demonstrate insight, any apology remains a narcissistic exercise.

3. Drop all conditions.

No but I had a little too much to drink. No I didn’t have all the information. No circumstances were beyond my control. No other people have failed much worse. All of that may be true. It doesn’t matter. Assume unconditional responsibility. No butif onlyunder other circumstances. Own it. Fully. Don’t diminish your 100% ownership of your actions.

4. Feel it.

Clever apologies don’t stir us. Cognitive insight alone is never enough. We long to know that you had an emotional awakening which prompted you to apologize. That your emotions were stirred as you reflected on the impact of your behavior. Especially if your apology is caused by any misdeeds on your dark side. Yes, we need your apology to come from the heart. And that’s the part we cannot EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER fake.

A heartfelt apology is a sign of strength. Always is. It flips the narrow expert story – hey, I have all the answers – to a more human story – hey, I am a leader who loves to execute and win, but yes, I am human, and I own my mistakes with integrity.

More helpful story, right? More truthful story, as well.

All it takes is an apology. Apologize freely. Apologize well. Apologize from the heart.

And don’t fake it, please. 

Related: The Waterfall Effect .. Or The Delicate Art of Creating Alignment