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Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

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Question: What do former Time Warner CEO, Jerry Levin, former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill and (soon to be former?) Washington Wizard, Gilbert Arenas have in common? Answer: They each have their issues with saying, "I'm sorry."

Of course, that trait is not unique to them. Elton John recognized it as such a standard characteristic of the human condition that he and his lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote a song about it. Here's the hook:

It's sad, so sad
It's a sad, sad situation
And it's getting more and more absurd
It's sad, so sad
Why can't we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

Elton and Bernie were right. It's pretty absurd how hard it is to say, "I'm sorry."

Here's the recap on the three examples mentioned above. As reported in the Financial Times, Jerry Levin apologized on CNBC this week for selling Time Warner to AOL for $164 billion 10 years ago. The operative phrase there is "10 years ago." I think that qualifies as a little late. A few days earlier the Sunday New York Times ran an article on Sandy Weill and how no business people want to play with him anymore. (The article was titled, "Citi's Creator, Alone With His Regrets." )

Now under partial government ownership, Citi is selling off a lot of the businesses that Weill put together as CEO. According to Weill, he feels "incredibly sad" about that but assigns the blame mainly to his hand-picked successor as CEO. Finally, there's the case of NBA player Gilbert Arenas who thought it was a good idea to bring his handguns to the Washington Wizards locker room. Always the joker, Arenas thought it would be funny to suggest to one of his teammates with whom he was having an argument that he select one of the guns and the two of them shoot it out. Strangely, the teammate didn't see the humor in that and drew his own gun. Fortunately, no shots were fired. For the first four or five days after the story broke, Arenas pretty much blew it off as a big laugh but after an interview with the cops eventually acknowledged that gunplay in the locker room wasn't such a great idea.

Since it's hard to go through life without making a mistake, it's important to know how to say, "I'm sorry." Those two words are a good starting point but more is needed. Here, then, are some tips on how to apologize:


Own It:
A credible apology begins with actually believing and understanding that you have something to apologize for. If you're not there yet, don't apologize. You'll do more harm than good. If everyone around you seems angry and you don't understand why, it's time to...

Get Into Their Shoes: Find some people you trust and ask them, "What did I do wrong and what should I do to make amends?" Be prepared for some tough responses. Resist the urge to defend yourself. Listen and ask open ended, follow up questions to deepen your understanding. Be sure to thank them for their candor when the conversation is over.

Say It: A good apology begins with the phrase, "I want to apologize to you for (insert your screw-up here)." You might go on to briefly explain what you were thinking but be sure to spend more time demonstrating that you understand and regret the impact of your action on others. A bad apology sounds like, "I'm sorry if anyone was offended or hurt by or misunderstood my actions." It seems like athletes do this version all the time. You need to be sorry for what you did, not for how people might have misunderstood or reacted.

Don't Deflect: Whatever you do, don't deflect the blame to others. (Seriously, don't you hate it when other people do that?) No one wants to hear why other people were at greater fault than you. They especially don't want to hear comparisons that your mistakes weren't as bad as other people's mistakes.

Be Timely: Sometimes better late than never isn't. It's really important to apologize as soon as your recognize the mistake and understand the impact of it.

Fix It: Conclude your apology with a commitment to fix the situation as much as possible. Most of the time that fix will begin with the sincere commitment to not make the same mistake again in the future.

What would you offer here? What are the elements of the best apology you ever heard? How about the worst? What are the tell tale signs that an apology is needed?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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