Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The art of the apology

Sorry Day, May 26th, has just passed with almost no media comment.

It took ten years for the  Bringing Them Home Report  to  become the subject of an official apology. It’s a national reminder of  how hard  it can be to say sorry.

Despite (or because of ) the delay, Kevin Rudd’s speech had enormous symbolic significance.  It was an important gesture, and at the time at least, it served its purpose. He had a big message, which was simply stated in direct language, using strong but controlled emotion.  You can watch it and read the transcript  at  the end of this post.

Acknowledging the harm you’ve done is highly potent. It is interesting that ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’  have now been used in South Africa, Philippines, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Liberia, Argentina – to name just some. Psychologists say they  do seem to play an important role in  healing after violence and  trauma,  by promoting  reconciliation, and breaking the silence of repression.

At a common sense level the power of ‘sorry’ is easy to understand. It’s doing it that’s the hard bit. In all but the closest  relationships apologies are pretty rare.  Apologising in the domestic, business or  community context can be  just as awkward  as in the public sphere. Our  baggage:  status, position, credibility, and personal self-esteem, combine to block us. And as suing gains popularity, apologising loses it. We don’t say ‘sorry’ in case admitting guilt  will lead us to a law suit.

Apologies matter for two reasons, says Holly Weekes in the Harvard Business Review. “First, they mend relationships. When an offense has torn the fabric of a relationship, an apology is a stage in its repair. Second, apologies mend the transgressor’s reputation. Following an offense, some people …may have concerns and doubts …. An effective apology can reassure people that the transgression is understood and not likely to be repeated”.

Emotional truth is what gives apologies their power,  but emotions can also get in the way. It’s hard to say that we messed up – our pride  stops us. If we did something cruel or careless or dumb, we feel embarrassed.  Apologising can stir up feelings of distress that we would much rather leave undisturbed. And if we did something wrong, the other person probably did too. Sometimes we’re so mad with them that what we did  seems justified.

Even if your heart wants  to say ‘sorry’, working out the words is a challenge.  How you approach it will depend on the relationship you’re in.  What you say to your wife/husband/kids (yes – you can apologise to your kids)  is going to be different from what you say to your colleagues, boss, staff or people you’re not so involved with – neighbours and acquaintances for example. It gets more complicated if you are expected to apologise because of your role, rather than  for something you’ve personally  done. This happens to CEOs and politicians,  and is the domain of crisis communication consultants and professional advisors….

Like any communication,  to make an apology you’ll need  to be clear  about what matters to your audience, and what you want  to communicate. What’s gone wrong? Why? What outcome  do you want as a result of the apology?

To be effective an apology needs three things:

1. Acknowledgment of  the fault. A description of what you did that was wrong and what ‘code’ was broken. When you explain,  avoid making  excuses or justifying yourself, it’s important to show your reasons for doing what you did, but  also to own your mistakes.

2. Regret. The healing begins when the wronged person senses your  emotion is honest. To say sorry properly,  you have to mean it.  Time’s list of the ten best apologies  – mostly celebrities who need to  repair their reputations for PR reasons, is chock full of formulaic insincerity  –  a great  guide to what not to do.

3. An offer of reparation: Finding a way to make good will mean a lot to the offended person.

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tabled this motion in Parliament on February 13, 2008

I move:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations


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This entry was posted on 28/05/2012 by in Public speaking, Special Occasions.

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