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The Power of Two Little Words - I'm Sorry

I was flying recently and off to enjoy a little R & R. The day was unrushed and rather enjoyable. When we boarded the plane, I heard one of the flight attendants say, "I don't know when the pilot is going to arrive. We have no pilot." Interesting. I automatically used my cell phone to call those who were going to pick me up and told them I'll probably be delayed and to call the airport first before leaving.

Shortly thereafter, the flight attendant announced the following, "We expect to have at least a 45 minute delay due to our flight crew still being en route. If we are longer than 45 minutes we will permit you to deplane." As is human nature, many passengers started to gripe, speculating as to why there was no flight crew, none of which was positive and reflected poorly on airline. It was all speculation, of course, but tempers were flaring and the passengers were plotting ways to wrangle a free flight, texting, and tweeting hashtagging the airline. 

Within the promised 45 minutes the crew arrived. Immediately the Captain got on the loud speaker and said, "I'm sorry for the delay. I could lie to you and make up all kinds of reasons for my delay but the truth is I screwed up on my schedule. This is not the airline’s fault but mine alone. I'm sorry. I'll will do everything possible to get us there faster." After that he cracked a few jokes about not knowing where we were headed, the passengers laughed and the mood lightened considerably. He told the truth and apologized then sought to make amends. His genuine, honest and immediate admission of responsibility for the passengers' inconvenience and a sincere apology worked wonders in mitigating backlash against the flight crew and the airline. However, the story about the Captain's apology made a powerful impression and was retold in a very positive way by many that day. The delay was secondary and ultimately proved inconsequential. The airline also comped everything during the flight including premium drinks and earphones. A few days after the delayed flight I received an e-mail from the airline apologizing for the inconvenience I suffered which included a $25.00 credit voucher towards my next flight. 

This is a powerful lesson. How often do we feel compelled to protect ourselves from possible rebuke from our clients by not offering up an apology for a mistake we made for fear that owning and apologizing for a mistake will diminish us in the eyes of our client or worse, set us up for a grievance or malpractice claim? After all, being a solo you have no one covering your backside professionally or financially.

"I'm sorry." Why are those two little words so difficult to say? Perhaps because they hold such power. An honest apology can mend relationships, dissolve anger, soothe shattered pride or heal a broken heart. And a study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that apologizing can even have health benefits, such as lowering stress levels. Meanwhile, avoiding an apology makes relationships more strained -- and it can reveal something negative about you. Being incapable of apologizing can be a real character flaw."

There are three keys to a successful apology: regretting your actions, taking responsibility for them and being willing to remedy the situation.

Studies have shown, especially in the medical profession, that an apology and showing regard for the individual who is impacted by mistakes reduces the risk of malpractice claims. While most studies discuss litigation within the medical profession there are lessons we as practitioners can take away from this. States are starting to adopt "Apology" Laws. So read more from the Sorry Works! Coalition site. Would it be too much of a stretch to see this very 'human' concept applicable to the legal profession to help with grievances and malpractice claims?

Why wait for the profession to put it in place. Should the future find you embroiled in a situation, your office policies and an accounting of genuine remedial steps for a mistake may favorably impact the outcome of any grievance or malpractice claim as well as your reputation going forward. (Of course, if you are grieved or sued this should not take the place of seeking out legal advice from an attorney who handles such matters.)

Have you considered creating an "Apology Law" practice within your own firm for client upsets both large and small, real and imagined?

Comments for The Power of Two Little Words - I'm Sorry

Name: Herbert Ogden
Time: Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How does this relate to § 4.7.5. of the ALPS policy? Could an apology be deemed an admission of liability and void coverage?

Name: Mark Bassingthwaighte
Time: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mr. Ogden,

The comment you submitted in regard to the “I’m Sorry” blog post has been forwarded to me because your question is a good one and worthy of a more detailed response.

As with so many things in life, the answer to your question of could an apology be deemed an admission and thus create a problem is “it depends.” There are so many things day to day that can go wrong during our work days and that sometimes result in an upset client. I’m talking about things like being late to an appointment with a client, being short tempered for some personal reason, forgetting to return a call, etc. I think Susan’s point was in trying to get us to appreciate how the words “I’m sorry” can be used to deflate these kinds of small problems before they evolve into something bigger. In my mind it’s about being more effective at managing the client relationship and I thought Susan’s point was well taken.

That said, in the context of discovering a serious legal misstep, the words “I’m sorry” if also followed with “this is all my fault” would not be something I would advise any attorney to say regardless of who they are insured with prior to a discussion with a claims attorney. The reason is that it’s too early in the process and it may or may not be the attorney’s fault and it may or may not be repairable. We just don’t know and the admission takes options away from the carrier. Again, in my mind, there is a difference between saying I’m sorry that such and such a situation has happened and I’m sorry I messed up and caused this mess. One expresses a feeling and the other accepts responsibility for what has happened. When an attorney accepts responsibility for a malpractice misstep by saying something like “I’m sorry this is my fault and we’ll make it right” prematurely, meaning prior to reporting the situation and discussing it with the carrier, the attorney really could create a coverage problem.

I hope this helps and would be happy to discuss further if you so desire.


Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq.
ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company
Authorized Representative
Risk Manager

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