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Holinger: How to Say “I’m sorry,” and mean It

“Sorry I’m late, John,” I say, shaking hands with John Kador, an old friend whose new book, “Effective Apology,” led to this seminar at the Geneva Commons’ Barnes and Noble.

I didn’t know it yet, but I had just passed the first test of an effective apology: I didn’t explain why I was late – also known as an excuse – placing blaming for my behavior elsewhere.

I didn’t tell him that on my way out the door, my wife asked me to deposit some checks at the bank.

For many years, every Sunday I played tennis with a friend who showed up late. His inveterate tardiness showed a lack of respect for the rest of us; we weren’t worth the trouble of being on time.

Though he apologized each week, he didn’t make an effective apology, which includes accountability and penance, a change of behavior and an act of contrition. My tennis buddy should have been on time the next week, bringing with him a dozen muffins.

Joe Wilson’s half-hearted apology to the president for shouting “You lie,” John points out, should have been addressed to the nation, and followed up with, say, visits to high schools to encourage civility in public discourse.

Apologizing for destructive acts demands constructive action, “to reinvigorate the values violated,” as John puts it.

“Why do we fear saying we’re wrong?” John quizzes us.

“Because we’re scared it can be used against us,” one of us observed.

“Sure,” John agrees. “It exposes us to liability. Worst of all, the apology might be rejected.”

“Leaving us vulnerable,” I add.

“A sincere apology gives up control of facts and history,” John continues.

“You eat crow,” I posit, finally getting it. “You decide what’s more important – your moral superiority or your relationship with the person thinking you wronged him.”

Incredibly, apologies pay off.

“CEOs who say they’re sorry see higher stock prices than those who dig in their heels,” John says. “The apologetic CEO accepts personal responsibility and can move forward. The CEO who blames everyone and everything else makes less money and stays a shorter time at his job.”

He closes with his favorite story. When helping a client write a speech, John suggested the man apologize for an indiscretion.

“I never apologize,” he told John. “I’m sorry, but that’s just the kind of guy I am.”

“Something tells me he missed the irony,” I muse.
According to the book’s introduction, a well-spoken apology defuses resentment, creates good will and transforms relationships ruptured by mistrust and disappointment into something more durable.

Before we leave, he gives us a business card that, besides offering information about the book, reminds us, “Apology is the practice of extending yourself because you value the relationship more than the need to be right.”

Sorry, but that’s all there is to it.

• Rick Holinger is a contributor for The Chronicle and has been a resident of the Fox Valley for 30 years. Write to him at

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