Leading with Trust

Reflect Back Before You Say Sorry – Tips for Improving Your Apologies

If you say you’re sorry before truly understanding how the offended party feels, have you really apologized?

That question may not be quite as metaphysical as the classic, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” but it’s certainly worth considering if you’re serious about rebuilding trust in relationships.

I remember countless situations when my two sons were young kids and they’d get into squabbles with each other. After refereeing their dispute and performing my fatherly duty to declare one or both of them at fault, we’d inevitably get to the point where I’d tell one of them to apologize to the other. You probably know how the rest of the story unfolds, right? After several declarations of innocence and blaming the other person, one of them would grudgingly utter a terse, resentful, and perfunctory “sorry.” Neither of them were overly concerned with understanding how the other felt; they just wanted to placate dad and get on with their business. That strategy may fly when you’re six years-old, but it doesn’t work as an adult in the workplace.

Delivering an effective apology is one of three key steps in rebuilding trust. However, apologizing isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface. There are key success factors of effective apologies, one of which is reflecting back the other person’s feelings.

Why is reflecting back feelings important and how do you do it?

  • Reflecting back feelings is important because it allows you to understand how the other person is feeling. It also allows the offended party the opportunity to process, share, and release the feelings he/she has been holding on to, which is important for moving beyond the hurt of the situation.
  • When you apologize, give the other person time to speak and share their feelings. The apology is as much about them—their pain, emotion, state of mind—as it is about your behavior. Don’t make the apology all about you.
  • As you listen to the other person share his/her feelings, don’t rebut, argue, or defend yourself. The purpose of reflecting back feelings is to show the other person you understand how he/she feels. It’s not to debate or argue points of facts.
  • Reflect back feelings by using statements like, “I heard what you said,” and “I understand why you feel that way.” Using statements like “Tell me more about that,” or “Help me understand what you mean by…” will open up the conversation and allow the other person to share in an environment of safety.

So I’ll take a shot at answering the metaphysical question: If you say you’re sorry before truly understanding how the offended party feels, have you really apologized?

My position is no, you haven’t fully apologized if you don’t understand how the other party feels. Admitting your harmful behavior is half of the apology. You can take it all the way home by understanding, acknowledging, and addressing how your behavior made the other person feel. Following this approach will increase the effectiveness of your apologies and lead to higher trust in your relationships.

Broken Trust – 3 Steps to Repair & Regain the Trust You’ve Lost

As I’m driving into the office one Thursday a few years ago, I’m contemplating the agenda for my team meeting that morning. It dawns on me that it’s April 1st—April Fools Day. Being a guy who loves a good practical joke, I immediately start thinking about a prank I can pull on my team. The only idea that comes to mind is to tell the team I’m resigning. I figured people will immediately know I’m joking, we’ll all get a good laugh, and then we’ll go on our merry way. Boy, was I wrong.

I enlisted several co-conspirators to follow my lead and feign reactions of surprise and sadness when I made the announcement at the end of the meeting. What ensued were acting performances worthy of an Oscar. The net result was team members were shocked, angry, and felt betrayed by my callousness. One person got very emotional and stormed out of the meeting in tears. Why I thought that joke would be funny is beyond me. Instead of having a good laugh with my team, I had severely eroded their trust in me.

Over the next several days I met with team members one-on-one and together as a group. I followed these three basic steps to rebuild trust between us.

  1. Acknowledge—As the 12-step recovery process has taught us, the first step in fixing a problem is to acknowledge you have one. When violations of trust occur, it is tempting to sweep the fallout under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Breaches of trust need to be met head-on and burying your head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist only makes the wound fester and become infected. It’s helpful to assess which of the four elements of trust has been eroded and then admit your mistakes. There are few trust-building behaviors more powerful than admitting and owning your mistakes. After your admission, let others express their feelings. Listen with empathy and understanding; don’t debate and argue.
  2. Apologize—The second step in rebuilding trust is to apologize for your actions. This is a make it or break it moment in the process of rebuilding trust. If you apologize well, you set the course for healing and higher levels of trust in the future. If you botch the apology, you can dig yourself into an even deeper hole of hurt and dysfunction. Effective apologies have three basic components: admitting your fault, expressing remorse for the harm caused, and committing to repairing the damage. Check out The Most Successful Apologies Have These 8 Elements for more tips on apologizing.
  3. Act—This is where the rubber hits the road in rebuilding trust. You can articulate the most awesome apology in the world, but the relationship will suffer permanent harm if you don’t change your behavior. The key success factor is to have a plan of action that is agreed upon with the person you offended. Outline how each of you will move forward in the relationship, what accountability looks like, and how you’ll know when the breach of trust has been repaired. The time it takes to repair trust is usually proportional to the severity of the offense.

Rebuilding trust in relationships requires us to be vulnerable and courageous. We have to acknowledge we did something wrong, apologize for our behavior, and act in ways that repair the damage we caused. However, the net result can be even stronger levels of trust. Relationships that have experienced the crucible of broken trust can come out stronger on the other side if both parties are willing to engage in this hard work to get to a place of healing and restoration.

The Most Successful Apologies Have These 8 Elements

sorryI’m pretty good at apologizing and I think it’s primarily because of two reasons:

  1. I’ve been married for over 28 years.
  2. I mess up a lot.

That means I get a lot of practice apologizing. I’ve logged way more than 10,000 hours perfecting my craft, so by Malcolm Gladwell’s measurement, I’m pretty much the world’s foremost expert on apologies. The fact my wife is a loving and forgiving woman doesn’t hurt, either.

More than 28 years experience has shown me there are eight essential elements of an effective apology:

1. Accept responsibility for your actions – If you screwed up, admit it. Don’t try to shirk your responsibility or shift the blame to someone else. Put your pride aside and own your behavior. This first step is crucial to restoring trust with the person you offended.

2. Pick the right time to apologize – It’s a cliché, but true – timing is everything. You can follow the other seven guidelines to a tee, but if you pick a bad time to deliver your apology, all of your hard work will be for naught. Depending on the severity of the issue, you may need to delay your apology to allow the offended person time to process his/her emotions. Once he/she is mentally and emotionally ready to hear your apology, make sure you have the necessary privacy for the conversation and the physical environment is conducive to the occasion.

3. Say ‘”I’m sorry,” not “I apologize” – What’s the difference? The word sorry expresses remorse and sorrow for the harm caused the offended person, whereas apologize connotes regret for your actions. There’s a big difference between the two. See #4 for the reason why this is important.

4. Be sincere and express empathy for how you hurt the other person – Along with saying I’m sorry, this step is critical for letting the offended person know you acknowledge, understand, and regret the hurt you caused. Make it short and simple: “I’m sorry I was late for our dinner date. I know you were looking forward to the evening, and being late disappointed you and made you feel unimportant. I feel horrible about hurting you that way.”

5. Don’t use conditional language – Get rid of the words if and but in your apologies. Saying “I’m sorry if…” is a half-ass, conditional apology that’s dependent on whether or not the person was offended. Don’t put it on the other person. Just man up and say “I’m sorry.” When you add the word but at the end of your apology (“I’m sorry, but…”) you’re starting down the road of excuses for your behavior. Don’t go there. See #6.

6. Don’t offer excuses or explanations – Keep your apology focused on what you did, how it made the other person feel, and what you’re going to do differently in the future. Don’t try to make an excuse for your behavior or rationalize why it happened. If there is a valid reason that explains your behavior, it will likely come out during the apology discussion. But let the other person go there first, not you.

7. Listen – This is perhaps the most important point of the eight and one that’s often overlooked. After you’ve made your apology, close your mouth and listen. Let the offended person share his/her feelings, vent, cry, yell, laugh, scream…whatever.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings (“I understand you’re upset”…”I see I disappointed you”…”I know it was hurtful”), but resist the urge to keep explaining yourself or apologizing over and over again. I’m not suggesting you become an emotional punching bag for someone who is inappropriately berating you; that’s not healthy for either party. But many times the awkwardness and discomfort of apologizing causes us to keep talking when we’d be better off listening.

8. Commit to not repeating the behavior – Ultimately, an apology is only as effective as your attempt to not repeat the behavior. No one is perfect and mistakes will be made, but a sincere and earnest apology includes a commitment to not repeating the behavior that caused harm in the first place. Depending on the severity of the offense, this may include implementing a plan or process such as counseling or accountability groups. For minor offenses it’s as simple as an intentional effort to not repeat the hurtful behavior.

So there you go. The Great 8 of giving effective apologies, honed from years of groveling…err…apologizing for my mistakes. What do you think? Are there other tips you would add? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

The 1 Key to a Successful Apology

Puppy Dog EyesI appreciate a good apology.

For some reason, probably because trust is one of my most treasured values and I study it, write about it, and help others to build it, I pay particular attention to how people apologize.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t know how to deliver an effective apology (To learn more, see 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology.) Frequent mistakes include making excuses or placing blame, using conditional language that weakens the impact of the apology, or not being sincere or empathetic in your communication.

However, every once in a while I come across a great apology and I experienced such an occasion recently with some colleagues at work. The cool thing is this apology contained the one essential component that makes an apology successful. I’ll set the stage and you tell me if you can identify this critical key.

The Situation
Ann is one of our most fantastic consulting partners. She brings high energy to her training and speaking sessions and our clients love her. Recently Ann unknowingly double-booked herself for two different clients on the same day—a simple calendaring mistake on her part. Ann admirably tried to fix the problem on her own but her well-intentioned efforts ended up creating more confusion in the process. Diane, the project manager coordinating these client events, and Judy, the staffing specialist who maintains the master booking calendar, spent most of  the day rearranging the logistics to meet both client’s needs. In the end everything worked out and the clients were well served and happy.

The Apology
Ann, recognizing the impact of her actions, sent the following apology email to Diane and Judy.

Dear Diane and Judy,

I don’t even know where to start with my apology for the problematic series of events my actions caused. I am so sorry for…

  • My oversight on my calendar
  • Not communicating earlier about this change
  • The extra time and effort required of you to “put things back together again” including scheduling, communication, and going back and forth with the clients, and
  • Everything else in this debacle.

(All lessons learned.)

I believe the sincerity of an apology is in not repeating the action you’re apologizing for. This won’t happen again.

Sincerely,

Ann

The One Essential Component of a Successful Apology

Did you spot the one critical key? If not, here it is:

“I believe the sincerity of an apology is in not repeating the action you’re apologizing for. This won’t happen again.”

Not repeating the behavior you’re apologizing for is the one critical component of a successful apology. If you want to get technical, you could say it’s not even really part of the apology—it’s your behavior after you apologize that’s most important. You can deliver the most eloquent, warm, sincere, textbook apology, but if you repeat the behavior then it’s all for naught. Conversely, you can botch the delivery of your apology but still regain trust over time if you don’t repeat the offending behavior. The bottom line is your behavior will determine the validity and sincerity of your apology.

Thank you, Ann, for modeling an excellent apology and giving me permission to share it with the Leading With Trust readers!

Feel free to leave a comment about your own experience delivering and/or receiving apologies.

2014’s Top 10 Posts: Why You Don’t Trust People, When to Fire Someone, and More

Top 10 StampIt’s hard to believe we’re about to tie a bow on 2014 and unwrap the present that will be 2015. This past year has seen a 29% growth in viewership for the Leading with Trust blog! I’m grateful for the community of people who take the time to read, comment on, and share the articles I write. My hope is they are beneficial to helping you lead in more authentic and genuine ways that build trust with those under your care. There is nothing more critical to the success of a leader than building trust with his/her followers. Leadership begins with trust!

As you reflect on your leadership lessons from this past year and contemplate areas for growth in 2015, these Top 10 articles from this year may provide some inspiration and guidance. Enjoy!

10th Most Popular Post: 10 Awesome Interview Questions to Really Get to Know Job Candidates – Creative questions that will help you make one of the most important decisions a leader faces.

9th: Five Steps to Repair Broken Trust – Originally published in July 2011, this continues to be one of the most widely read posts on Leading with Trust.

8th: 9 Warning Signs an Employee Needs to be Let Go – Sometimes firing an employee is inevitable. Learn the warning signs so you can address the situation quickly and respectfully.

7th: 3 Types of People, Projects, and Tasks Every Leader Needs to Eliminate – You need to lead with a purpose and this post will help you understand areas in your life that could benefit from some healthy pruning.

6th: 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology – One of the most powerful ways to rebuild trust is to apologize when you make mistakes. But not all apologies are created equal and this post will help you learn how to do it the right way.

5th: Are You a Thermometer or Thermostat Leader? – Do you set the tone for your team or do you reflect it? This post from June 2013 will challenge you to be a leader that functions like a thermostat instead of a thermometer.

4th: Everyday at Work is a Job Interview – 5 Tips for Demonstrating Your Value – Each day at work is an interview for you to keep your job. This post will help you understand and adapt to the reality of today’s competitive job environment.

3rd: Top 10 Easy, No or Low Cost Ways to Tell Employees “Thank You” – This Thanksgiving-themed post from 2013 applies year-round. Telling employees how much they are appreciated is one of the most powerful ways to build trust and high performance in your team.

2nd: Stop Walking on Eggshells – 4 Tips for Dealing with Temperamental People – Dealing with temperamental people at work can be intimidating and emotionally exhausting. Learn four tips to help you deal with this challenging situation.

and the #1 Most Popular Post for 2014…

3 Reasons You Find it Hard to Trust People – Choosing to trust someone can be a difficult and risky situation. This post will help you understand three common reasons why you find it hard to trust people and what you can do about it.

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