The Art of the Apology (My Advice to Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Photo by  Den  on  Unsplash

Photo by Den on Unsplash

If you're in business long enough, it's inevitable.

You WILL say or do something stupid on social media, on a podcast, in a media interview, or in a meeting that sparks a backlash from customers, employees, or the public.

But when this happens, how do you respond? How do you say "I'm sorry" to make things right—and not inflame the situation? 

An Apology of Errors

The first step is to know what NOT to do.

And our case study for this comes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist.

In the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, Tyson stepped in it with this tweet:

Tyson might have had good intentions. But his tweet missed the mark in terms of understanding the emotional state of the public.

"This is a bad take; it's tone deaf, and cold."

"Undeniable proof that knowledge and wisdom do not always co-exist."

"It's almost comforting that even a super important scientist can be so fundamentally stupid on some subjects."

The next day, Tyson issued an apology on Facebook—read the full post here—which appeared to make the situation worse.

Why did Tyson's apology fail?

Going on Defense

First, he tried to explain himself—a big no-no. 

"My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die. Where I miscalculated was that I genuinely believed the Tweet would be helpful to anyone trying to save lives in America. What I learned from the range of reactions is that for many people, some information—my Tweet in particular—can be true but unhelpful, especially at a time when many people are either still in shock, or trying to heal – or both."

Here are two reasons why offering an explanation in the heat of apology is a bad idea:

1. Even when your reasoning makes perfect sense (to you), it will sound like an excuse.

2. Anything you say beyond a sincere apology can—and will be—used against you.

Your objective is to own your misstep, apologize for it, and then SHUT UP. Anything more, and you risk opening yourself up to more criticism. 

Sorry Not Sorry

Then, Tyson qualified his apology. 

"So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my Tweet could have on you." you can imagine, that line didn't go over too well. That’s because anything short of a full-throated "I'm sorry" will give the impression that you're insincere. 

And many of his followers called him out on it.

The 4-Point Apology

Okay. But what should he have done differently?

I would have recommended crafting an apology along these lines:

"My Tweet yesterday in the aftermath of the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton was insensitive and lacked compassion. You are right to expect better from me. I let you down. I am sorry." 

Notice how the apology is structured. It fits within what I call "The 4-Point Apology." 

Here are the four points that we can apply to almost any situation where we really "step in it"—including with our spouses or significant others :-) 

#1. Own it. 

"My Tweet...was insensitive and lacked compassion."

Get right to the point by taking full ownership of your mistake. No explanation. No excuses.

#2. Validate the concern.

"You are right to expect better from me."

You're signaling that you're laying down your defenses, which will typically disarm the other party. 

#3. Show remorse

"I let you down."

Reinforce that you understand, unequivocally, what you did was wrong. 

#4. Apologize. 

"I am sorry."

Don't qualify anything about your apology. Let those three words carry their full weight. 

The Bottom Line

Giving an apology is never fun. But when you take full ownership of the situation, you'll increase the likelihood of tamping down the backlash and healing (and preserving) those relationships.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use storytelling to unlock sales growth. Sean is also the founder and executive editor of Strategy & Storytelling, a blog that serves as the CEO's definitive guide to becoming a more effective and persuasive communicator.

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