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How to communicate after a train wreck

4 min read


It’s unlikely that you’ll ever have to apologize for a debacle that’s anything like the Affordable Care Act’s glitch-glutted computer-system rollout. But looking at the way President Barack Obama has responded can provide valuable lessons for whenever you might fail to meet the expectations of your boss, your staff, a valued customer or any other party. Here’s how you can lessen the fallout from a fiasco.

  • Deliver the bad news quickly because unless you do resentment will grow and you’ll look like you’re unable to handle the situation. Describe the scope of the problem fully, concisely and without evasive Dilbert-speak. “There’s no sugar-coating it. The website has been too slow. People are getting stuck during the application process,” Obama said.
  • Take personal responsibility. The problem may have had many causes, but excessive attention to them might imply you’re ducking responsibility.
  • Explain your personal feelings about the issue. If you feel angry, say so. “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website is not working as well as it should,” Obama said. Don’t dwell on your feelings, though, because you might give the impression that you’re sorrier for yourself than for the others who were affected. Commenting on the Gulf Coast oil spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward properly said, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There is no one who wants this over more than I do.” But then he added an unnecessary and ultimately self-damaging, “I would like my life back.”
  • Describe what you’re doing about the problem, but be careful not to raise unrealistic expectations.
  • If you’re making a person-to-person apology, look the other person in the eye. If you’re apologizing to a group meet the eyes of every member of the group, one person at a time. You can’t make an effective apology when you’re angry. Let your anger subside before you attempt it. And, of course, you should never apologize with e-mail.
  • Listen fully to the complaint and let the other party make its case. Resist the temptation to defend yourself until the other party has finished. Show that you’re listening with nods and other facial expressions and by paraphrasing what you’re hearing. If you don’t understand completely, ask for clarification.
  • There’s a difference between “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” The former describes your feelings about what happened, but it may not be enough if the other party was angry or deeply disappointed and expects a sincere apology. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” is even worse because it might imply that you feel the other person is offended without real cause. There’s also a difference between “mistakes were made,” which often is used by people trying to avoid responsibility, and “I made a mistake.”
    Don’t be afraid to apologize or admit a mistake. Don’t begin the discussion by saying something like “I understand from Joe that there’s an issue here.” This is a disservice to Joe, and the party you’re addressing might bristle at the word “issue.” If you caused a problem, acknowledge that it’s a problem.
  • Give the other party an opportunity to ask questions about your explanation. Your boss or a customer will feel free to ask questions but your staff might not; make it clear to them that you welcome questions. Don’t count on the power of your position to help you resolve the problem. You might get angry questions from those you offended, but be sure to maintain your composure. Anticipate the questions that might be asked and prepare concise, persuasive answers to them.

An effective apology can do more than make amends. It can strengthen a relationship because it gives the other person a sense of satisfaction and closure. In legal disputes, it results in faster settlements and lower demands for damages. Handling a disappointment adroitly can help show you take responsibility for your performance and you can handle problems.

Rosenthal is chief executive of Communispond, which has helped more than 700,000 professionals communicate with clarity and power. It has served more than 350 of the Fortune 500 companies since its founding in 1969. Go to the company’s website for free access to whitepapers, articles and videos on all aspects of communications and selling, to sign up to receive free e-newsletters and to learn the schedule of upcoming open-enrollment courses. Contact the author at