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Who’s Sorry Now?

You see them in the news all the time—the non-apologetic apology.

“Sorry if I embarrassed you and your family and friends.”

“I sincerely regret any miscommunication that contributed to this result.”

“I’m sorry if anyone was offended by that picture of my children holding AR-47s.”

Businesses and their leaders sometimes offer the same weak sauce when it comes to saying they’re sorry.

“I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive.”

“While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial…”

“We are disheartened by the way this situation unfolded…”

And of course, there’s the classic non-apology: “Mistakes were made.”

The truth is, mistakes are made. Often. Sometimes, by us.

You’ve been there, I’m sure.

You make a sharp remark and then wish you’d kept that thought to yourself. You misinterpret what somebody said and respond more harshly than you should have. You miss a deadline, show up late for an appointment, or fall short on a commitment.

That’s when it’s time for a sincere apology. Emphasis on “sincere.” Not back-handed, not a fauxpology, but an honest-to-goodness acknowledgement of our own screw-up and an expression of remorse.

Of course, some people think apologizing is always a bad idea for people in public life, for companies, and even for individuals.

The Atlantic’s profile of General Mark Milley captures the question nicely.

You might remember Milley walking from the White House to LaFayette Square with then-President Trump and other officials in the midst of protests over George Floyd’s death. Demonstrators had been forcibly cleared, and the president was about to pose with a Bible and issue a statement.

Milley took some serious flak for participating in that show of force. And, in a keynote address to the National Defense University Class of 2020 he apologized.

“As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I’ve learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

No dodging. No hedging. Just a straight-up acknowledgement that he’d been wrong, and a stated intention to do better.

The former president was not pleased with Milley’s remarks: “I saw at that moment he had no courage or skill.”

Donald Trump is not alone, of course, in disdain for saying we’re sorry. He’s well-known for his antipathy to an apology. But plenty of other people in public life (and maybe in your life) also see apologizing as a sign of weakness, caving in, or inviting further criticism. That’s why so many of them settle for “if anyone was offended” or some other dodge.

Milley had a different take, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:

“’Apologies are demonstrations of strength,’ Milley told me. ‘There’s a whole concept of redemption in Western philosophy. It’s part and parcel of our philosophy, the Western religious tradition—the idea that human beings are fallible, that we sin and that we make mistakes and that when you do so you own the mistake, you admit it, and then you learn from that mistake and take corrective action and move on.’”

I’m with the general.

And yes, I’ve had a recent experience with the need to apologize. I lost my temper, said a few things I was sorry for, and needed to say so. I think I did it well. And, when it comes to communication of any sort, it never hurts to see what the experts have to say.

There’s actually a website called Sorry Watch, where they analyze apologies and explain what works, what doesn’t, and why. 

The women behind the website say there are six steps to a good apology:

  1. Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” (“Regret” is not an apology!)
  2. Say specifically what you’re sorry FOR.
  3. Show you understand why the thing you said or did was BAD.
  4. Be VEEERY CAAAREFUL if you want to provide explanation; don’t let it shade into excuse.
  5. Explain the actions you’re taking to ensure this won’t happen again.
  6. Can you make reparations? Make reparations.

Milley may have fallen short in their book—he didn’t come right out and use the words “I’m sorry.”

Seems to me he was close enough though. He didn’t use any of that weaselly language like, “if anyone was offended.” He acknowledged that what he’d done was wrong and why. And he made it clear we wouldn’t see a repeat.

I’d give his mea culpa a passing grade. And I’m going to start paying more attention to how people in public life handle apologizing. I might learn something, don’t you think?

Whatever it is, I’ll share it with you … and I hope you’ll return the favor.