Thursday, March 03, 2011

Anatomy of a bad apology

Some of you may have seen a news story last week about John O'Connor – a college basketball coach who was caught on videotape knocking over one of his players in practice, kicking him when he didn't get up, and then yelling, "Got a little blood on ya? Good!"

This incident made the news after the player filed a police report, and kicked off a national debate about tough versus abusive coaching. It eventually culminated in a tense meeting between player and coach on the television show Good Morning America, during which the player would not accept the coach's apology. Soon afterward, the coach resigned his position.

After reviewing a video of the show, I feel this incident has an important lesson for all of us – but not the one you might think. I feel that in this case, the coach did not lose his job over a shove on the basketball court. He lost it over a stupendously bad apology.

Apologies are a tightly scripted dance where every word has to work. They are one form of communication where 99% often isn't good enough: like O'Connor's game of basketball, the momentum of the game can turn on you in a heartbeat, and the wrong words can easily backfire. So in that spirit, I would like to respectfully break down how the player probably heard O'Connor's words.

"This was an accident": Here, the coach is blaming circumstances rather than himself, and saying it wasn't really his fault. Statements like these are like throwing chum into shark-infested waters.

"I was just trying to make us a better team and make us more competitive": This is the dreaded rationale statement, where he thinks the right reasons will somehow make things OK. But the listener doesn't care. Instead of taking ownership, these "reasons" make him sound entitled and defensive.

"It was unintentional by me": He may think he is saying he had no malice of forethought. Instead, it sounds like he had no control over what happened, and for that matter, it could jolly well happen again.

"I'm really sorry that it happened": Oops. This is the classic "I'm sorry but not responsible" statement. Instead of talking about what *he* shouldn't have done, he wishes that "it" hadn't happened.

So let's replay this apology as the player probably heard it: "I wasn't responsible for what happened. I have no clue how I could have avoided it. Besides, I had good reasons for it. So it's too bad it happened." Breaking down the linguistics, I frankly don't think the player had much choice in turning it down, especially in front of an audience.

Even worse, when GMA host George Stephanopoulos asked coach O'Connor whether his behavior was over the line, he hemmed, hawed, and insisted it was an "accident." Linguistically, game, set, and match went to the player at that point.

Now let's try a real apology that steps up and takes ownership, validates the injured party, and expresses remorse and restitution: "Matt, I crossed a line last week. I tried to be competitive after a tough loss and took it much too far. In the process I embarrassed you, me, and our school. I acted like a bully, and I don't blame you for reacting the way you did. You are a good player, and this shouldn't have happened to you. I apologize for what I did; more important, I want to promise you that I have learned from it, and that it will never happen again. I hope you will give our coaching relationship another chance from here."

If the coach had chosen the right words, I feel his player would have been much more likely to accept his apology; in fact, he might have seemed petty not to. And the coach – who had the support of much of his team after the incident – would probably still have his job and his dignity intact.

If this subject interests you, check out a truly incredible book: Effective Apology by John Kador. It breaks down the mechanics of good versus bad apologies – and in the process, will teach you how to have grace and power in your most challenging situations. Like sinking a clutch 3-pointer, I hope this coach can eventually learn to use the power of words better, and move forward from this incident.

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