A Good Apology Builds Trust

by Apr 6, 2022Leadership

Last Thursday, I packed up my laptop and headed to a routine physician appointment. Expecting to wait a few minutes, I came prepared to work on the manuscript for my next book. I settled in and began writing, so I overlooked the time. When I looked at my watch, it had been 40 minutes. 

I went to the reception desk to inquire, and this is what I heard: “I don’t have any control over how long you wait.” It’s hard to imagine a worse response. These situations almost always ignite the researcher in me, even when I’m annoyed. Observational research plays a role in nearly everything I do because it augments quantitative.

I asked to reschedule, but hearing I was next, I chose to stay put and continue my study of this multi-physician practice. By the time I left, it was 2:45 – my appointment was for 1:30. 

Once the staff realized I had been waiting a long time, the apologies came in a flurry, but they were, without exception, bad apologies. Here are a couple of examples. 

“She’s with someone who is a complicated case, and she’ll be in soon.” 

“It’s not my fault.” 

“We didn’t know you were waiting.” 

“I’m so sorry for the delay; I was with someone who took a little longer.” 

“We don’t usually run late.” 

“Let me give you some context.” 

Explanations, masquerading as apologies, miss the mark because they aren’t focused on the other person but on defending and rationalizing. 

Dr. Harriet Lerner has studied apologies – the good, the bad, and the truly awful. Her book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing big betrayals and everyday hurts lays out the taxonomy of a good apology and does so with good humor, thank goodness! 

I found it extremely useful to learn about the research and have a model to follow. Her work also helps us understand why bad apologies might be worse than none. Apologizing isn’t just about what we say. A good apology leaves room for others to tell us about the effect – the very thing we dread! 

Dr. Lerner’s work isn’t just about what’s wrong with us that we are so bad at apologizing; she shows us the power of a good apology to heal hurt and build stronger relationships. The leading expert on influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini, says people admire those who freely disclose errors, giving us access to a “laudable trait” and increasing trust.