When will they ever learn?

Jan 13 2022 by Bob Selden Print This Article

Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, was forced this week to apologise to Parliament and to the UK people for attending a party in the gardens of No. 10 Downing Street during last year's lockdown, which he later described as a "work function" in a feeble attempt to justify his error of committing acts that the British people were barred from doing during the pandemic.

As one reporter put it, "another one-star apology from Johnson".

Like so many other apologies from public figures that we've become so familiar with, it started out in the right manner – describing the hurt and anger that people were experiencing, "I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want, or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me and the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules".

And of course, because we (the public) have become so familiar with these unmeaningful apologies, we all know what's coming next – the excuses. In fact many of us could probably write the script, we've heard them so often – it's only the excuses that may change! He continued, "and though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current enquiry . . . (and this is where it starts its downward slide – amidst titters, guffaws and some unbridled disbelief from opposition parliamentarians) . . .I know I've learned enough that there were things we simply did not get right."

Why do we disbelieve these so called "apologies", and why do many public figures get them so wrong? Compare Johnson's words with those of NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, visibly emotional, speaking on Sunday 9th December 2018 when UK tourist Grace Millane's body had just been found in bushland in western Auckland.

"There is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality, on our manaakitanga," she said, using the Maori word for 'welcoming others'. "So on behalf of New Zealand, I want to apologise to Grace's family – your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn't, and I'm sorry for that."

With that statement, whilst still feeling sad for this horrific event, all New Zealanders moved from a feeling of 'shame' to one of 'pride' – pride in their ability to show that they could emphasise with the hurt of the Millane family.

Why did Ardern's apology get reported worldwide with overwhelming admiration, whilst Johnson's is being seen as insincere?

Was it the emotional state evident in Ardern's delivery? Was it the words she used? Why did one apology move the audience from one emotional state to another, whilst the other kept the audience in one of anger?

It is both.

The words 'apologise' and 'sorry' have two totally different impacts on both the speaker and the audience. 'Apology' is a noun – it can be analysed, dissected, debated and argued over – and it goes straight to the reasoning part of the brain. 'Sorry', on the other hand, is an adjective – it describes a feeling of sadness – it can't be described, analysed or dissected – and it goes straight to the feeling part of the brain.

Apart from not saying 'sorry' for hurting others, there are also further issues with a formal apology such as that issued by Johnson. Most formal apologies, whilst rarely using the word 'sorry' also make the mistake of using what psychologists call 'qualifiers' – words such as 'wholeheartedly', 'unreservedly', 'sincerely', 'honestly' or 'to be honest', or 'unconditionally' - and people see through these immediately and label the entire apology as insincere.

The other main difference between these apologies, is that one was personal – given by Ardern on behalf of the New Zealand people – she personalised it using the words "New Zealand", "Grace's family" and "I'm sorry". Johnson showed no sympathy nor remorse for his personal mistake.

Companies, government departments, anyone who has hurt anyone else, needs to ensure that their apology is sincere, given from their personal perspective, and contains the word 'sorry'. And most importantly, it should contain no reason as to why the mistake or event occurred – that may be for another time, and another place. People just want to hear and feel that the speaker is genuinely sorry for causing the hurt. In Johnson's case, people are still feeling angry.

From a corporate and legal perspective, there's a spurious argument that saying "sorry" may imply negligence or imply financial retribution. It does not. For example, it's been reported that in the US, doctors, nurses, and other clinicians have been told never to say the word "sorry", lest they buy the hospital, practice, or insurance company a lawsuit. Yet, it's now known that the absence of 'sorry' is one of the chief drivers of medical malpractice litigation in the US. Seasoned litigators say patients and families often mention it during depositions: "nobody ever said sorry."

A study published in the Journal of Patient Safety and Risk Management found that hospital staff and doctors willing to discuss, apologize for and resolve adverse medical events through a "collaborative communication resolution program", experienced a significant decrease in the filing of legal claims, defence costs, liability costs and time required to close cases. For instance, the study found that for events that contained medical errors, these events were resolved by 'apology' alone in 43% of the cases.

And for those wishing to get some guidelines on how to say "sorry" and mean it, the NZ Privacy Commissioner's website has an excellent article "How to say sorry". As their article suggests, "Very often, we find that complainants who have a sense of hurt and anger due to the actions of an agency, simply want that hurt recognised, and for an apology to be issued. In many situations, apologising is simply the right thing to do, and agencies recognise that."

Above all, it's important to say, "I'm sorry", not just "sorry"

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.