The Summer MailbagSteve Adubato, Ph.D.
Many readers wrote in response to my recent column on Dharun Ravi’s very late apology. Following is a sampling of that feedback:
Estelle Julian from Hillsborough said; “Dharun Ravi’s apology looked like and sounded like it came straight from the attorney, who must have asked Ravi to sign it for legitimacy. No one I know bought it. There are some people who cannot actually say, ‘I'm sorry for XYZ,’ because it is an acceptance of blame. He still doesn't get it.”
Estelle, I think you have it right. Any time an apology sounds like it was drafted or crafted by lawyers, it just doesn’t have a genuine feel to it. Lawyers have their place, particularly when it comes to communicating around sensitive legal issues. However, in the court of public opinion and perception, as well as human relations, legalese or even the hint of legal language just doesn’t feel right. Simple, straightforward communication is the only thing that works. Saying; “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” works. It doesn’t sound legal, it takes full responsibility, there are no gray areas, your words can’t be twisted and that’s what many wanted to hear from Dharun Ravi much earlier on in this very painful process.
Glenn Allen Jr. from Livingston, NJ, wrote in to recommend a book that offers great tips when it comes to the art of the apology; “The book ‘On Apology,’ by Aaron Lazare, details how apologies heal friendships and people overall and what a ‘successful’ apology needs.” According to Glenn Allen Jr., the book explains that a statement like; ‘If I offended anyone, I apologize,’ is not an apology. He goes on to say that the book, “did state that some successful apologies can be made a few days later, for example, when the offended party calms down....The main thing every apology needs is an acknowledgement of the wrong and a show of remorse, either as a show of contrition (not to do it again) or a monetary retribution (repaying a broken window)... Even acknowledging you're trying to change yourself to make amends was always seen as a positive step.”
This is great advice, Glenn. And the book you recommend is a fantastic read. I agree that the key to an effective apology is to sometimes wait for a cooling-off period, however, if you wait too long, that apology can fall on deaf ears. Further, a commitment to not repeating the wrongful action and making restitution, if possible, is key to the apology process.
Long-time reader Joe Wardy wrote to say; “In my experience, apologies ‘in person’ are effective and so is crafting a handwritten letter that is well-written and genuine...While a disadvantage of a written letter is that the apology contains words without the important components of tone of voice and body language, the advantage is that the written process allows the writer to thoughtfully say what he wants to say. In addition, the words shared by the writer can be kept by the receiver!”
I hear you, Joe, and the handwritten letter or note can still be quite effective when apologizing, especially in the age of e-mails, texting, etc. It’s a permanent form of communication. However, in certain instances, there is still nothing as effective as the in person apology. The danger, of course, is that when apologizing in person, many people get caught up in the emotions of the moment and say things beyond the apology that creates new conflict which, in turn, only hurts the relationship.Like I’ve always said in this column, effective communication is not a science but a craft that all of us must work at every day as we learn from our mistakes and make a commitment to do better tomorrow.
Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on communication and leadership and is author of the new book "What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless" (Rutgers University Press). Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ 07102, visit his Web site at www.stand-deliver.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.