Apologizing as a Legal vs. Political Strategy
Our country is divided along many dimensions. One realm where this phenomenon exists is in the world of politics. We see in poll after poll a near-even split in the way the country views the president, his policies and now with impeachment. Roughly half want the president impeached and removed while the other half are firmly entrenched in the idea impeachment and removal is unfair and unwise. Perhaps this needle will never move significantly since people tend to seek out information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs and attitudes. Could this ever change? Possibly.
Supporters of President Trump like his aggressive style, and it is hard to envision a scenario where Trump publicly admits making any type of mistake. After all, his history of bold proclamations and doubling down is what helps to keep his supporters enthralled with his presidency. But what if he showed some contrition in how he handled the phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky? Ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse but impeachment is a political process. I believe it is equally likely Bernie Sanders will publicly declare that billionaires desperately need a tax cut before Donald Trump utters any sort of remorse for the phone call, but if Trump did accept responsibility for the call and it went something like this (see below), public perceptions would be altered, which in turn would affect politicians’ calculus of his pending impeachment.
“First let me say I understand why many people disapprove of the way I handled the call with President Zelensky. Perhaps it really wasn’t perfect. I realize that perceptions matter and I hold myself and my administration to the highest ethical standards. I am not making excuses. My background is not a legal one, it is a business background. I became president in large part because of my experience in real estate transactions and then of course reality television. I understand people’s frustrations and I am truly sorry for how I handled this call and I will make sure this does not happen again.”
Again, this or anything like it will not be said by Trump, but you can see how something along these lines, if said sincerely, would soften some of the public’s anger over what took place. Apologizing is an effective mode of communication that on some level everyone is familiar with. Attorneys seem to shun making any type of apology because it is not in their blood based on their years of training and experience to not cede any ground. But there is more to the equation than thinking an apology is merely an admission of fault. Think of your audience. The public is very familiar with apologies and does not think of apologies the same way a lawyer does. The public in its own world deals with apologies all the time. Sorry I forgot to walk your dog. Sorry I was late I got stuck in traffic. Sorry I overcooked the burgers.
At its most fundamental level, an apology diffuses an impulse to express outrage or send a message by disarming with empathy. Have you ever prepared to berate someone for some type of bad behavior, thinking you are about to have a major confrontation of epic proportions as you plan to teach this person that what they did was wrong, only to have them express empathy, see your point of view and then ultimately apologize? Research is replete with studies showing doctors are less likely to be sued when they issue some type of apology. I have also seen this anecdotally in my role as trial consultant. The bottom line is people are less combative when a proper apology is issued and as a result their proclivity to sue wanes. Apologizing can reduce tension, change the dynamics of the discussion, humanize the heads of large corporations (or even a president), avoid lawsuits and promote settlement.
Why do apologies work so well? Apologies make people appear more likeable. However, apologizing is an art, and an insincere or perfunctory one can drastically backfire. The takeaway is not just to say “I am sorry” because there is much more to it than just uttering those mere words. In fact, it is better to not apologize at all than to apologize, seem to accept some responsibility for what happened, and then turn around and throw someone else under the bus.
Keep in mind there is a range of apologies to choose from depending on the extent of accountability a company or person is willing to accept. Choosing which apology fits the situation can make or break the apology.
The full apology expresses remorse and acknowledges responsibility for playing a causal role in an event. A partial apology expresses remorse or regret but stops short of accepting responsibility for what took place. The partial apology emphasizes sympathy but is very light on responsibility. A botched apology is worse than not apologizing at all. Any apology followed by “but” is a troubled apology from the start because it looks like you are making excuses. A true apology does not include the word “but” (“I’m sorry, but …”). Adding this one simple word after an otherwise meaningful apology introduces an element of retracting the apology and dodging responsibility. In our parallel universe where Trump apologizes it wouldn’t do him any good if he said, “I am sorry about the call with President Zelensky, but the fake news media and democrats are blowing this all way out of proportion.”
Apologies work so well because a well-crafted apology that is sincere makes the person apologizing more human. Apologies also provide closure in many circumstances.