Sorry seems to be the hardest word



Yes, there is a song from a bygone era of wide ties and bad haircuts and while the line is corny, the sentiment is true, particularly when it comes to organisations wanting to engage the community or other stakeholders.


In day-to-day life, apologies can roll off the tongue, ‘sorry for the bump’, ‘sorry for being late’, ‘sorry for missing the wedding anniversary (again).’ In fact, consider the people you have more respect for, the ones who pretend nothing has happened, or those that genuinely apologise from the understanding that they did something wrong?


For most of us, the person that is willing to show humility is elevated in our esteem, rather than diminished. In part because we all know it can be hard to swallow our pride and in part because it reminds us that none of us are perfect.


However, while we appreciate the power of apologies on a personal level, organisations get very nervous about the prospect of delivering one. The most common reason given is that it might increase the chance of litigation, yet researchers are putting this myth to bed.


One study showed that a genuine apology resulted in 73% of recipients being more inclined to accept an offer/settlement (which is not always money) but when the apology was ‘half baked’ (my words, not theirs) this dropped to 35%. If no apology was given, there was a 50/50 chance. This awareness is now becoming standard operating procedure for the medical profession with their 'open disclosure' policies.


This is interesting for other sectors to consider. ... in essence, if you want to engage people and are getting some form of push-back or outrage then there is a good chance you have done something wrong. This means that apologising may be an important step in the re-establishing of the relationship.


Yes people can react for different reasons and it is important not to take the blame for something you didn't do, but jumping to defense and denial becomes a sure fire way to inflame the situation.


Which means, we need to be careful that it doesn't become a strategy to try to manipulate. We are seeing this more and more, we also see apologies being made by celebrities, politicians and sports stars who have fallen from grace front the media with an apology, only to repeat the same behaviour.


So apologise, but it needs to be done in a genuine way. We need to be willing to name the mistake, claim it and let them tell you how they have been affected by it ... some may say it's a courageous move, but others (like the health sector) know that it makes good sense because they know it works.


The course on Strategies for Dealing with Opposition and Outrage in Public Participation present more on this strategy and the other 5 strategies developed by Peter Sandman.