My mother was a very wise woman. She told me once that the mark of maturity is understanding how and why to apologise. She said that you should never be afraid to be wrong and to admit you are wrong.
She told me it takes 3 steps. Step one was to admit to the person that you were wrong. Step two is to apologise, but the apology only works if you understand why you’re apologising and what you’re apologising for. The third and final step is to offer to make amends in a real and lasting way and this has to be something done not on your terms, but on the terms of what the person you’re apologising to. It has to be what they want and need.
This means that a successful apology requires a certain degree of humility. You need to sufficiently comfortable in your own skin to be able to do this without feeling it diminishes you. You actually need to care more about getting it right to the other person, than about how you appear.
I was speaking at an NHS Ethics conference in Coventry 2 weeks ago and at the end of my speech I asked if anyone had any questions. A senior surgeon raised his hand and asked me if Southern Health have ever apologised to me. I actually laughed – I couldn’t stop myself, as the thought of them apologising just seemed so ludicrous. I replied “No, we’ve never had an apology and I know now we never will because in order to apologise they would first have to admit they were in the wrong”.
I watched Katrina Percy, the CEO of Southern Health being “door stepped” by BBC’s Michael Buchanan this morning on the national news. She looked haggard, dishevelled and certainly not in command of her own wardrobe, let alone a large NHS health Trust. However, she had clearly never met my mother, or been given any good advice in her life around apologising as she had this to say:
“My job is to lead a very large organisation and make sure that we have the right environment for our doctors and nurses who work really hard every single day. That’s my job and I’m continuing to do that at the moment”.
Did I blink and miss it? Was there an apology there at all? I didn’t actually even hear a reference to the actual events which are unfolding as we speak – I heard no acknowledgment that people’s beloved sons and daughters have died on her watch. Died and then she tried to just sweep them into the corner, unnoticed.
Yesterday in the House of Commons I received an apology, but sadly it broke all three of my mother’s “good apology” rules.
When Jeremy Hunt the Health Minister, apologised yesterday on behalf of the NHS, he told us that he was profoundly shocked at the Mazars Report’s findings. He went on to say:
“Today I would like to offer her (Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother) and all other families affected by similar tragedies, a heartfelt apology on behalf of the Government and the NHS”.
Hmmm….. Close Mr Hunt, but not quite right. Let me take you through those apology rules again Jezza and while I have your attention, I think you should be listening to this too, Katrina Percy:
Rule 1. “Admit to the person you were wrong”. That means actually people – not some blanket, all family apology. Ms Percy you definitely know my son’s name and you know my name too. You can tell Jezza what it is if you want to. You can use our names to remind everyone that those thousand people who died in your care all had names and faces. They all had loving, now grieving families.
Rule 2. “Understand why you’re apologising and what you’re apologising for.” I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one, but frankly Ms Percy as no-one has even mentioned the “hard working doctors and nurses” in your company, so it sounds very much to me as if you’re really not sure why you’re apologising to and what it’s for.
Rule 3. “Offer to make amends in a real and lasting way and this has to be something done not on your terms, but on the terms of what the person you’re apologising to. It has to be what they want and need.” I’m waiting. I’m happy to wait until you’re interested in even asking me what I want and need. I’m also very happy to tell you – you really just have to ask.
And so it seems that sorry really is the hardest word. Or maybe it’s just so very hard to say when you don’t mean it and then it just becomes another sound-bite echoing through the air. Blowing away in the wind. Until it just becomes nothing.