Oscar Muñoz sure knows his way around a public relations crisis. After all, PR Week recently named the United Airlines CEO communicator of the year. Less than a month later, after police dragged a 69-year-old passenger off an overbooked United Airlines plane at the airline's behest, leaving the man dazed and bloodied, Muñoz issued this heartfelt mea culpa: "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers." With communicators like that, who needs idiots? By noon the following day, United stock had fallen by 3 percent, or $1.4 billion. And PepsiCo executives were pouring celebratory rum into their sodas.
With one knuckleheaded sentence, Muñoz had made everyone forget Pepsi's strange apology. In case the rash of corporate stupidity has swept that incident from our media-addled brains, Pepsi had apologized for the insulting Black Lives Matter knockoff ad—by apologizing to Kendall Jenner. Maybe we could forgive these people a little more if they knew how to apologize. Just why are they so bad at it?
As someone who makes a living teaching persuasion to everyone from students to litigators to corporate types, I can suggest an answer: Even the best apologies don't work. Whether you've pissed off 300 million consumers or your own lover, you need to know the tricky art of screwing up. (Trust me, I'm a master. For example, early in a career as a journalist, when Mt. St. Helens first blew its top, I put it in the wrong state. The governor of Washington wrote to my boss asking for her volcano back.)
So why don't apologies tend to work? Why is it that, when you do actually apologize, it often doesn't seem enough? And why does it feel so damn rotten when you say you're sorry?
The philosopher Aristotle had an answer. The chief cause of anger, he said, is "belittlement," or treating people as something less than the respectable human beings they think they are. A couple millennia later, belittlement would become the chief cause of medical malpractice suits.
When you belittle someone, it virtually shrinks them, making them seem small. They demand an apology because they want you to shrink to their size. Rhetorically speaking, an apology is a form of self-belittlement. That's why in some cultures apologizers literally make themselves look smaller by bowing deeply. The reason why powerful people, along with most of the male sex, aren't very good at apologizing is that they prefer swinging a massive reputation. Self-belittlement shrinks them.
Not that you should never say you're sorry. Feel free—if you think it's expected. But "I'm sorry" is about as sufficient as saying "Hey, thanks!" to a waiter and walking out without paying for your meal. Unless you follow a few steps to a proper screw-up recovery, you're facing a serious relationship deficit. Or, in Muñoz's case, a deep drop in your company's value.
Follow these steps, on the other hand, and you can actually come out ahead of where you started. You can look sincere, sympathetic, trustworthy, and possibly even capable.
Set your goal and have a plan.
Our first instinct in a screwup is to get defensive and engage in earnest butt-covering. We want to dredge up an excuse or mere doublespeak ("re-accommodating" for roughing up an elderly passenger). Or we issue a non-apology: I'm sorry you feel that way, you sensitive flower. Instead, think beyond the incident. What do you want to get out of this, besides calming people down? Don't settle for getting yourself out of trouble. Aim for a stronger relationship, or a better reputation, or keeping your job. Then devise a plan that will fix things.
Be first with the news.
This is tough when you're an airline and every passenger has a smartphone. But I've worked with airlines, and they have teams of communicators who can instantly get in touch with a passenger. United officials could have contacted the gate agent and talked directly with the passenger, then given the pilot a script. They could have talked with the police involved, all within half an hour. In your case, try to make sure you tell your significant other what you did at that party before he or she hears from an eyewitness. You want to be in control of the news, with nothing to hide. And that means telling everything. As every good PR person knows (with the probable exception of Communicator of the Year Oscar Muñoz), the truth will come out sooner or later. Let it come from you. It makes you seem more trustworthy.
Talk about your feelings, not the victim's.
Counterintuitive, I know. But don't apologize for the other person's feelings. Tell how bad you feel that you hurt him. More importantly, say how bummed you are that you slipped from your own high standards. You're not usually like this! While you don't have any excuses, you're going to do your darnedest to keep this from happening again.
Then switch to the future.
Right after you say what you did and express your own feelings, describe your plan to fix things. If you're a corporate type, say you're putting all hands on deck, changing the policy, making it easier to say yes when you're asked to give up your seat—maybe even changing how you overbook flights. If you're a regular person, talk about the new resolution or habit or your iron determination to avoid drunken after-parties with your co-ed kickball team. Describe a better future and how you're going to get there.
Sure, say you're sorry if you want to. But focus on those four steps. Not convinced? Imagine making these two statements to a supervisor:
You: Boss, you know what a detail person I usually am. In this case, though, I didn't live up to that reputation. My mistake drives me crazy, and I'll be even more fanatical about detail in the future.
You: Boss, I screwed up, and I apologize. I'm really, really sorry, and I promise it won't happen again.
In each instance, how do you think your posture would look? Where would you be looking? I'm guessing you stood up straighter in the first version and looked pretty hangdog in the second. Even a sincere, heartfelt, over-the-top apology won't get the job done. Not only does it focus on the blameworthy past; it delays fixing the problem. A self-shrinking act makes you less capable of boosting the other person. And, ultimately, boosting the victim—correcting the wrong, empowering the powerless—leads to long-term mutual happiness. Of course, it's not a bad thing if your victim mistakes version one for an apology. But while he or she looks for contrition, you happen to be moving the issue into a bright and reputation-enhanced future.
Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times' bestselling Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.
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