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The art of a good apology




“Rosh Hashanah offers a space for people to reflect on who they owe an apology to, whether the person needing the apology is alive or has passed on,” says Maryse Barak, a local corporate training and facilitation consultant and executive coach who works with teams from large organisations in South Africa and Europe. Barak helps to transform meeting processes, mentoring, and team alignment among other business applications.

“There are personal and public apologies. For example, we recently saw the chancellor of Germany apologise to Poland on the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II,” she says.

Although working with people is her area of expertise, she recently caused “unintended psychological injury” to someone because of her own “blind spot” in a situation, and this led to ripples of discontent that needed to be repaired. Ultimately, she needed to apologise.

From this experience, she advises that anyone seeking to give a real apology first needs to take personal responsibility for the hurt they caused, even if it was unintentional. Second, they need to use language carefully, to ensure that it is gracious, honest, and sincere. Third, they need to take “absolute ownership” of what happened, and then ask what they can do to make it right, especially in practical ways. “The most important aspect is restoring the connection of trust and respect that has been eroded,” she says.

It’s also important not to “infantilise” or patronise the other person. “Be acutely aware of your tone of voice.” Ultimately, a good apology must have no excuses. “You need to say, ‘I screwed up’, and then see how the other person responds.”

Barak warns that even with a genuine, sincere, and heartfelt apology, the offended person might still not accept it or might take time to accept it. Sometimes it’s a person who you engage with as if nothing has happened, but you know an apology still needs to take place and is hindering your relationship. It’s also a chance to reflect on who you think owes you an apology, and to ask yourself, “Can I let that go without receiving it?”

“It’s all about repairing and rebuilding. I think you can apologise beautifully, and it might still not be well-received. Sometimes the other person has to do their own work to recalibrate and regain their sense of self. There are rhythms of time and acknowledgement in this process, and hurt sometimes takes longer to heal. We also need to recognise that injury, and know that it might take time before we can reconnect. That’s the risk of apologising – it might not “land” as you want it to, and can remain open-ended,” she says.

Barak says that there is always space for anger, and nothing wrong with that emotion, but revenge isn’t productive. She sees in corporates how people hurt, demean, or belittle others all the time, and the impact it has on the organisation as a whole. She suggests that big companies, small businesses, and any group of people build tools for apologising into the culture of their organisation, instead of fumbling or rushing an apology when it’s needed.

“No matter how high up someone is in the hierarchy, they need to make room for apology. That’s a sign of mature leadership. It’s not ‘soft and fluffy’, it takes courage and humility to make a good apology.”

In South Africa, we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look to as a system built around apology. We also see moments when South Africans utter racist and derogatory statements, or when businesses and brands mess up, and these apologies are often rushed or feel insincere.

Barak says that individuals and brands should consider how they would apologise if they did something offensive so that they are prepared and proactive in making the apology matter.

“Genuine remorse is an opportunity to show you actually learnt something from a negative situation. It is not just ‘putting a plaster’ on the wound, but actually ensuring that restorative justice takes place.”

She suggests you ensure that actions back up your words “Ultimately, if an apology is taken seriously, it can make this time an incredibly meaningful change of year.”

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