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The delicate art of apology

The delicate art of apology

Everyone seems to be apologizing these days. Indeed, the ability to apologize is a key component in building trust.

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Everyone seems to be apologizing in public these days, from corporate executives and politicians to athletes and even pop stars. Some of these apologies are highly appreciated, while others are seen as pathetic or manipulative. Among the most notable examples on the international scene: Bill Clinton’s apology for lying in the Monica Lewinsky affair, Willy Brandt’s silent apology as he knelt in Warsaw in 1970, James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, taking the blame for tampered Tylenol, etc. Also memorable was the much less convincing apology from the chairman of Exxon not less than six days after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

There has been a remarkable cultural evolution in this regard. The general public, much like individuals in their personal relationships, has become more demanding and expects to get an apology when hurt or offended. This trend can be observed in all cultures – not only in Japan, “the ultimate apologetic nation,” and among women, always quicker to say “I’m sorry” than men, but also in Western countries, where to apologize was, until recently, experienced as a sign of weakness.

Besides moral considerations and personal convictions, this trend can be explained by a simple “cost-benefit” analysis. As uncomfortable as apologizing may be, the impact is generally very positive when the apology is well formulated. For example, a recent study showed that 37 percent of British patients who sued for malpractice would not have brought suit if they had simply received an apology from their doctor.

In fact, making an apology – if done properly – not only has the power to “make up for” a mistake, but can also often strengthen a relationship over the long term. For instance, customers who complain and get an apology and some form of compensation from the company tend to be quite loyal in return – and sometimes even more loyal than customers who have never had any problem at all! In day-to-day professional relationships, mastering the art of the apology is one of the keys to building quality relationships so critical to success.

Synopsis n.189b


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