The three most important words in personal and professional relationships

The hubris of business leaders and politicians is comically commonplace. With issues of fidelity, performance, or promises forgotten, we almost expect leaders to fail us on their social charge.

The hubris of business leaders and politicians is comically commonplace. With issues of fidelity, performance, or promises forgotten, we almost expect leaders to fail us on their social charge.

But what happens when they do? What is our expectation of response? Let's face it; we expect them to justify their faux pas. We always seem to have an excuse – a caveat to explain away our behavior. Perhaps imbedded in that defensiveness is a lack of personal courage and resolve to repair the tear.

Whether exchanged between friends, couples, or agencies and their clients, there are three relationship-saving words, while tremendously hard to impart, that can become the foundation for long-lasting connection…and they are not what you think. “I love you,” is not over-rated; however, these are not the magic words that help us transcend moments of disappointment, anger, and separation.

The heart-felt, genuine “I am sorry,” seems so difficult to leave our lips. When it does, there is too often “a good reason” attached to the action – to justify decision or behavior. In defensive explanation, the “sorry” disappears and we feel dissatisfied – even angrier than before. For in the “but there's a reason that I didn't arrive on time,” or “you didn't receive the release draft because,” or the myriad of challenges we face in personal and professional life, the dilution of apology is almost guaranteed to intensify the hurt person's reaction.

Leaders and firms can create cover-your-ass cultures that encode defensive and dissatisfying closure resulting from an insincere apology. The need to appoint blame and find the culprit -- “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” – leads to a cycle of ineffective apologies and weak relationships. Workplace cultures that encourage shared ownership and transparency will result in better retention, stronger client-agency relationships, and happier day-to-day staff engagement.

Noted author and lecturer John Kador visited our firm last year to share his thoughts on the perfect response to imperfection. His book titled Effective Apology – Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, speaks to the interpersonal challenge we face daily in owning our behaviors and how they impact others.

In one paragraph, Kador explains why apology is so vital: “There are costs to apology, but stonewalling also imposes costs. Our institutions and relationships suffer when we lie or try to limit our responsibility instead of cleaning up the mess we made. The first lesson … is that the costs of apology are never as dear as the costs of lying, denial, and defensiveness.” How many careers or client relationships – even loves – would be saved if we declared with strength of character – I am sorry?

Through my almost three decades in PR and more than three decades of marriage, I have offended. I have earned my white whiskers through mistake and accomplishment, often learning more from the former than the latter. I remember well the times I disappointed colleagues, clients, or family. I am grateful that they have the patience to examine closely and forgive. While apology is an essential leadership skill, it is not a gimmick. When those words leave my lips now, it is for a specific purpose – to take responsibility and restore relationships.

In giving me a copy of his work on apology, Kador said: “Gil, may you never have an urgent need for this book.” Far from perfect, it's one of those books that contain lessons always close at hand.

Apology is not a transaction; it is the bridge to longstanding relationships. Without heart-felt apology, the “I love you,” would morph over time into emotional vapor.

Gil Bashe is EVP at Makovsky + Company, where he leads the Makovsky Health practice. Follow him on Twitter @gil_bashe.

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