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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kador

Why Apologies Are More Effective Without Explanations

As the pace of apologies by business people responding to accusations of sexual misconduct accelerates, the apologies are not keeping up. One reason is that too many apologizers burden their apologies with explanations.

Mario Batali explains too much methinks.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali runs a restaurant empire worth about $250 million. Recently accused of groping and other trespasses against women employees, he issued a genuinely admirable apology until it went off the rails in an attempt to explain. After taking unalloyed responsibility for offending, expressing deep apology, and announcing that he is stepping away from the day-to-day operations of his businesses, Batali added this language by way of explanation:

We built these restaurants so that our guests could have fun and indulge, but I took that too far in my own behavior.

Predictably, critics focused on Batali’s implication that his regrettable behavior could be somehow conceived of as having “fun.” And the critics have a point. It’s offensive to suggest that creating a hostile workplace for employees can be justified as an “indulgence.” An otherwise effective apology was undermined by an attempt at explanation.

Batali’s error was unnecessary and avoidable. Apologies should serve the needs of the victims. Explanations almost always serve the needs of the offender.

Butt Out

Plus here’s another hint that an apology is going off the rails: the word “but.” Parse your apology and strike any sentence that includes the word “but.” Had Batali followed this rule, he would have been spared the criticism.

One reason explanations are undesirable is that they allow offenders to talk about their intent. This is the trap that John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, fell into when he issued a prophylactic apology. That is, he apologized and took a leave of absence from Pixar as soon as he was made aware of complaints and before the accusations went public.

Pixar’s John Lasseter

Intentions Don’t Matter

Lasseter had a very good apology until he said, “that was never my intent.” The issue that effective apologies address is outcomes, not intentions, and always from the point of view of the victim.

Garrison Keillor, former host of The Prairie Home Companion radio show, diminished an otherwise reasonable apology with this explanation:

Garrison Keillor

I put my hand on a woman’s bareback. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches.

This explanation is a badly disguised attempt to avoid responsibility. It doesn’t even make sense. Keillor compounds the error by presuming to understand what the victim’s state of mind was.

When apologies stray from serving only the victim, they make the situation worse.

Strip Out the Explanation

The remedy is easy in theory; difficult in practice. Just strip out any hint of explanation. It’s almost impossible to offer an explanation that doesn’t attempt to justify the behavior (“everybody did it”) or distance the apologizer from responsibility (“I was on prescription meds”).

Some victims eventually want explanations. There will be time for those after the apology if the victim asks.

The Smaller the Offense, The Grater the Need for Explanation

Some apologies do require explanations.

Paradoxically, the smaller the offense, the greater the need for an explanation. For example, if I jostle a stranger at Starbucks, an explanation is almost mandatory. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.” The second part of the apology is important because its absence would be considered as significant an offense as the jostle.

At the same time, the greater the offense, the more offensive any attempt at explanations becomes. Any apology that Bernie Madoff could have offered for defrauding so many people would be annihilated by any attempt at explanation. \

“Unforgivable” offenses require apologies without explanations. Families of murder victims want the apology but would be revictimized by explanations.

So when you apologize, just make sure you leave the explanations out. The more you want to explain, the more certain your apology should be devoid of any.


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