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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Archetypal Dispology

Two recent apologies in the news media have caused me to reflect on the communications issues related to apologies.  Managing the consequences of mistakes is important.  It is especially important in issues related to customer relations for businesses.  How we communicate about our mistakes is related to transparency.

Mistakes are a learning experience; they can make us better.  Or they can make us worse if not managed wisely.

“‘I am writing to express my deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding my comments about the Trayvon Martin case have generated,’ Richard Land wrote in letter to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bryant Wright” was quoted in foxnews.

This is not an apology; it is the archetypal “dispology” (This is my word; it’s not found in the dictionary.) and any journalist should recognize it as such and not use an inaccurate lead such as “A Southern Baptist leader apologized for comments he made…”

I do not apologize if I express sorrow for your hurt feelings, rather than for what I did or said.  This bit of semantic trickery or falsehood dissociates your hurt feelings from my mistake.  I am suggesting that what I said or did was not directly responsible for your hurt feelings, and therefore I have nothing for which to apologize.  The hurt is entirely in your brain and not my responsibility.

Richard Land heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and should know better.  And if he did not, the journalist writing the story should have known better and called out the falsehood.  To falsely apologize causes further pain rather than relieving it.  It doubles the pain.

The second case involves Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen apology for saying in Time Magazine that he “loves Fidel Castro.” 

I saw Guillen apologize on video, and he showed sincere contrition.  It is debatable whether Guillen did anything ethically wrong outside of Dade County, Florida.  His quotes about Fidel were clearly a bad business decision for the Miami franchise, but was it truly a diabolical act requiring contrition and self flagellation? 

Guillen’s apology strikes me as being coerced.  He was sincerely beat up and sincerely sorry that he made a dumb quote in his market.  Would that happen to a baseball manager in any other city?  The punishment did not fit the crime.

Apology is associated in my mind with the process by which I deal with mistakes.  I’ve taken this to heart in my business, Newswise, and tried to create a process by which we as a company deal with our mistakes.  This is the process of customer relations we use at Newswise when we make a mistake.  In my dealing with people with whom I do business, our relationship is adjusted to a higher level when they appropriately deal with a mistake.  Everyone makes mistakes.  It’s how you deal with the aftermath that shows character, maturity, and wisdom.

An apology has a structure or process:
* I acknowledge my mistake
* I clean up my mistake
* I make amends for my mistake
* I look for patterns in my thinking, beliefs, biases, or behavior that might lead to making the mistake again and correct those patterns
* I promise not to make that mistake again

An important underlying and systematic part of this process is to avoid blame.  Using blame hinders, inhibits, or impedes the process of fixing the error.

I suggest that journalists and communicators should recognize the distinction between an apology (definition: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret) from a dispology (a diseased, false apology).

Posted by Roger Johnson on 05/15/12 at 02:57 PM

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