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Beware the perils of the under-apology

In Be Bulletproof we argue that nothing is likely to exacerbate an already-fraught situation quite like an under apology. It seems that recent research from the NHS in the UK now bears this out.

Getting the wrong diagnosis, poor treatment or failure to communicate rate high on the list of grievances, but a simple failure to apologise adequately tops the list; and this speaks volumes about our most fundamental needs. It provides and invaluable lesson about how to work with humans.

Whether we are complaining about poor healthcare provision, or poor service in a store or restaurant, the issue is often our sense that the transgression relates to some deeper feeling. It is not about the indifferent sales assistant or the slow service, it is about the need to feel respected and cared for.

A short fall in care or respect leads to what Professor Kip Williams, of the University of Purdue, Indiana, calls ‘Social Pain’. Social Pain serves the same purpose as any other form of pain. It is there to tell us that something is wrong, and that if the situation continues, our well-being is in danger.

If you find yourself in a position where an apology is necessary, ask yourself, what is the real underlying emotion is that is causing the upset? Keep that in mind, and you will find a more personal, heart-felt and authentic apology, both fits the bill, and comes more naturally to you.

There is only one sort of apology that is effective; the full-bodied, uncompromising and whole-hearted apology. Anything else is likely to keep the embers of displeasure smoldering and ma even fan the flames.

Too frequently we can’t resist the urge have some form of self-mitigation slip into our apology. Or we use minimizing language in the hope that, if the situation doesn’t sound too bad, it won’t feel bad, or worse still we are tempted to slip in a fact that the aggrieved person may have contributed in some small way to the problem.

If in doubt, over apologize. This works because there is another important psychological phenomenon at work here, ‘outflanking.’ The outflanking technique in effect overstates just how deserving of an apology the aggrieved person is. When someone makes a particularly heartfelt apology or outflanks our concern, we naturally want to restore the balance and reassure the other person of our reasonableness. Try it out. You will find yourself be reassured that whatever happened really wasn’t such a big deal after all

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