Elton got it right

 Dec 16, 2016

Elton John sang about how hard it is. Many organisations fear it. Some people give it away too freely and meaninglessly, whilst others appear to resolutely avoid it. It can heal; it can harm. It all depends on whether it’s used, how it’s used and if it’s deserved.

It appears Elton (or Bernie Taupin as the lyricist) got it right; “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

In this blog I am going to talk about four types of sorry:

The one that’s said as a throw away; the one that has a big ‘but’; the customer sorry, and; the one that never comes.

Have you ever bumped into somebody and it was your fault but the other party apologised?

In this instance, sometimes ‘sorry’ is said too freely and diminishes the importance of it. Of course, the person could have issues with assertiveness and simply be apologising for existing. It is regrettable and no joke that during the many assertiveness workshops that I have run over the past 22 years, that issue occurs quite often.

Then there’s the “Sorry, but…”

What this is saying is, I know I did something wrong ‘BUT’ you were the cause or you did something wrong too. This is a realistic situation we are faced with, sometimes. We don’t want to apologise fully or otherwise the other party may not take account for what they did.

The remedy for this is to say something like, “I’m sorry for doing X, it was wrong of me. I would also like to speak to you about (whatever behaviour you think they did which was problematic) so we can avoid this issue next time.”

Of course, that is in personal or internal business situations. It is not something that you would say to a customer, which leads me to the third ‘sorry’; the customer sorry.

When teaching people about empathy in our various customer service and communication workshops, some people raise the question of whether it is acceptable to apologise to a customer. At this point a number of people chime in and say, “Our organisation has said we should ‘never’ apologise because then we are admitting fault.”

Sorry, however, has two uses/meanings. Firstly, it can be used as an apology for a wrongdoing, hence it has the connotation of culpability. The other way it can be used is as an expression of regret; a sorrow for something lost or a mishap. This second meaning can be done in two ways: feeling sorry for yourself or showing sorrow for someone else’s loss.

In a service sense, we can still show that we have concern and express regret for someone else’s misfortune without admitting culpability for the incident. Your apology would need to be followed by an empathy statement and be sincere; a true want to express your concern to the customer.

It would go something like… “I’m sorry you’ve had that experience; it sounds like it’s been frustrating for you.”

It is the sorry that never comes, that can cause the greatest problems and this is what prompted me to write this blog. Why is it so hard for some people to admit they were wrong, apologise and move on?

I was reading an article on sociopathy and narcissism the other day and it said sociopaths are more likely to say sorry (lying) to get away with bad behaviour but then do the same things again. Narcissists are unlikely to say sorry at all.

I think that diagnosis is a bit too simplistic and a generalisation (and the article wasn’t sourced from DSM V [Diagnostic and statistical Manual of Mental Illness]). It does give us some clues, though.

In many cases it could be the “sorry but…” case, where someone does not want to apologise because they think the other should first (or also).

There are probably many reasons why this is done, especially in the workplace. Fear of failure, shame, loss of control, loss of importance or face, fear of reputation injury may be some. The latter is ironic, because a lack of ability to say sorry might injure your reputation even more than the misdeed or mistake.

The easy and trite solution for me to suggest is:

“Get over it. Acknowledge your mistake. Say sorry. Seek to solve the problem by listening to the way it has impacted the other. Move on together.”

If you suspect you are driven by one of the ‘fears’ listed above this is not always not helpful. You may need to work through these issues before you can, “Get over it.”

Again, it does appear that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

For more information, take a look at New Horizons' Professional Development training courses.

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About the Author:

Tim Higgs  

Tim has been involved in the corporate training industry for over 15 years; seven of these have been as the Portfolio Manager and Senior Facilitator at New Horizons. Tim holds a Graduate Diploma (Psych/Couns), a masters' degree in Cultural Psychology and a bachelor's degree in Business, giving him a unique theoretical backdrop for understanding human performance in the workplace. This complements his actual experience of working within the corporate sector in sales and management positions and owning and running a small business. Having worked with individuals and groups in both clinical and business settings, Tim has a fantastic insight into human behaviour, motivation and the issue of human change.

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