What do you do — what’s the right thing to do — when you’ve messed up so badly and fallen from grace? In the wake of continuing news about people in positions of trust and authority taking advantage of their position of power to harass and humiliate, I want to share a simple and sincere approach: Admit, Apologize, Amend.
As a communication coach, I advise high level leaders on how to address situations when they’re on the giving or receiving end of complicated scenarios. I train the wrong doers to develop awareness of their negative impact and take appropriate action to change their language and behavior, and I coach the wronged to be assertive, confident and clear about how they expect to be treated.
There’s much to be said here, but in this article I’m going to focus on the Triple A approach and deconstruct former NBC Television Host Matt Lauer’s statement to illustrate the proactive way to use this method.
Admit: Take 100% responsibility for your behavior. Own up to what you said and did, in its entirety, and give up the whole truth upfront as it will unravel piecemeal anyhow. Don’t qualify your statements or underemphasize your wrongdoing, as it will diminish your credibility and sincerity.
(+) “…for the pain I have caused others by words and actions…To the people I have hurt….the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC…my own troubling flaws…” These are all examples in Lauer’s statement of agreeing and admitting to the wrongdoing.
(-) “…Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized.” Even if this statement is true, and most likely it is, it does not belong in an apology and takes away from the power of admitting, owning up and taking 100% responsibility. Using a defensive approach discredits the wrongdoer’s admission and dishonors the wronged.
Apologize: Express your sorrow for what you have said and done to directly and indirectly hurt another person. Describe how you have caused damage to their wellbeing, career, personal and professional life. Acknowledge that you have offended the other person and express your deep regret for the negative impact you have caused.
(+) “…to the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry…I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment…there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed…I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.” These are all examples of apologetic phrases in Lauer’s statement that express regret for hurting others.
(-) “There are no words to express my sorrow and regret…” I know this is a colloquialism, but it comes off as a cop-out that actually avoids commitment and responsibility by the wrongdoer. This is the leading sentence in Lauer’s statement and it is just too passive for an apology that is intended to address the harmed. “I want to express my deep sorrow and regret” would be much stronger or even “I sincerely apologize for…” This public statement is general for understandable reasons, but for an apology to be truly effective, it needs to be specific and personal. Many people I work with tell me that while they’re working on their own forgiveness so they could release themselves from the depleting energy it takes to stay angry, they would more than appreciate and welcome a direct and personalized apology from the person who has hurt them.
Amend: Once you have fully admitted, and sincerely apologized, you need to take action to demonstrate that you understand the extent of your wrongdoing and to correct your own behavior in a way that positively impacts the other person.
(+) “Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full time job.” Each of these phrases are examples of the amending action that Lauer is promising to take to repair and resolve his wrongdoing. He also aptly states that it will be no small feat and will require his full time and effort.
(-) “Repairing *the damage* will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning *that effort*.” The same statement that shows that Lauer is going to make amends also needs to be more specific in order to be meaningful and actionable. “The damage” and “That effort” need to be more explicit. The damage [I have caused to the individual women who I victimized when they were investing their talent and building their careers]? or The damage [I have caused to the reputation of the station that empowered and entrusted me]? or The damage [I have caused to the viewers who chose to get their news and information from me]? Only when we are specific about the behavior we want to correct can we exert effort in an impactful and measurable manner.
We are a long way from creating a culture in which bad behavior is not tolerated. In the meantime, as we have these conversations in the public sphere, we also need to start applying the tools that will help us navigate these difficult conversations with the appropriate attitude and approach.
Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer with a mission to make the world a better place, one communicator at a time. Her company Organic Communication works with high level leaders and trains decision makers in top organizations to communicate, collaborate and innovate naturally and effectively. Delivering programs in concentrated bursts, with high intensity and elevated engagement, Lee turns powerful content into actionable, applicable tools. Her forthcoming book, Stop Blocking, Start Connecting: 8 Key Skills of Successful Communicators, is available for preorder at 8blockers.com.