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The Art of Apologizing

It doesn't matter how much of a stellar performer you are, there will be times when you'll disappoint the boss, your staff, or a customer. Perhaps the boss is unhappy because you missed delivering a project on time or within budget. Your staff may be disappointed that you couldn't bring in additional support to handle a rush project. A customer may be complaining about an expected price increase.

In all these cases, an apology is in order. The way you make it can ameliorate the situation or, conversely, make things worse. Here are some tips on how to apologize so you not only minimize the damage but also come across as credible, reliable and fair.

What's most important thing is to apologize quickly. Unless you do, resentment about what happened may grow. The person or group that was affected may think you don't care about them or you're afraid to face up to the problem. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to apologize. Being quick to do it will immediately earn you points.

Learn as much as you can about the fallout the problem caused. What did the boss have to do because you didn't do what you should have done? How does the staff feel about having to take on an extra workload? What does the price increase mean to the customer? You can only learn by asking.

Listen carefully to what you hear. Resist the temptation to defend yourself until the other party has thoroughly explained. Show that you're listening with nods and other facial expressions and by paraphrasing what you're hearing. If you don't understand completely, ask for clarification. Learn the other person's personal feelings. Express sympathy for any hurt or anxiety you caused. It isn't a sign of weakness to do this. It shows confidence and strength.

Don't open the discussion by saying something like "I understand from Joe that there's an issue here." Apart from demonstrating cluelessness you'll be doing a disservice to Joe.Maybe other people in the organization contributed to the problem. You might be tempted to implicate them in it but you're best off shouldering the blame yourself. Avoid the temptation to apologize with an email message. It's a very poor substitute for something that should be said person to person and can cause resentment rather than help. (It can also reverberate in the social media.)

As you apologize, look at the other party in the eye. Managers uneasy about making eye contact in situations like this can give the impression that they're being evasive or even dishonest. If you're apologizing to a group, meet the eyes of every member of the group, one person at a time, for as long as it takes to complete a phrase or thought.

Purposeful use of the eyes in this way, (what is called "Eye-Brain Control" in the presentation courses taught by Communispond), is essential for communicating effectively, in any situation. Use body language to help show what you feel. If you're expressing regret but standing there passively the other person will take in more from how you look than what you say.

Be clear and direct with your language. There's a subtle difference between "I'm sorry" and "I apologize." The former acknowledges your feelings about what happened and it's the right thing to say when you're sympathizing with the other party.

When asking for forgiveness, though, saying you're sorry may not be enough. The other person might feel you're expressing regret without taking responsibility. If you say "Mistakes were made" you may sound like you're waffling, so you'll do better saying "I made a mistake." Describe what steps you're taking to avoid repetition of the problem. Be careful, though, not to make any unrealistic promises.

It may be advisable for you to offer a way to make amends. Think about this before making your apology so that you're ready to offer restitution if asked.

Give the other party an opportunity to ask questions about your explanation. Your boss or a customer will feel free to ask questions but your staff might not. Make it clear to them that you'll welcome questions. If you're addressing a group of employees that's harboring resentment about the issue, be prepared for some challenging questions - or even angry ones.

In these situations, be sure to maintain control. Raise your hand when you ask for questions to show how they should be asked. Look at the person who asked the question as you begin your answer, and then look elsewhere to show the answer is meant for everyone there. Anticipate the questions that may be asked. Prepare concise, persuasive answers to them. Be careful not to deliver canned responses, though. Make them appropriate to the situation.

The other party might not immediately accept your apology, irrespective of how well you make it. Listen carefully and respectively to what's being said before you continue. As you respond to the point that was made don't use the word "wrong" because it's loaded and may heighten tension. Even using the word "but" might imply you're rejecting everything the other person said.

Finally, I'd point to the experiences of two chief executives in recent years demonstrate the right and wrong way to apologize.

In 2006, David Edmonson, CEO of RadioShack, resigned over inaccuracies in his resume posted on the company's website. When the misstatement came to light, Edmonson made two strategic errors: He was slow to react and then tried to deflect responsibility: "I wasn't responsible for the website." He later conceded that an immediate apology might have saved his job.

In contrast, CEO David Swanson of R.H. Donnelly Corp. (now Dex One Corp.) was also credited on his company's website with a university degree he hadn't received. He went to his board before the error became known and made a public apology that accepted total responsibility, earning positive press coverage for his forthrightness.

Apologizing isn't easy. It's essential to apologize whenever you feel you're at fault, though. Good managers are able to do it well. They don't count on the power of their position to steamroll over those who may feel offended. Instead they use the apology as a way to earnestly make amends, turn adversity into advantage and demonstrate their sensitivity and fairness.

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