Sorry: the most powerful or hardest word?

03 August 2017

Many of us struggle with apologising, says John Windell, but in a professional context the impact of saying sorry is greater than you may realise.

Sorry: the most powerful or hardest word?

In personal relationships, saying sorry can sometimes feel like the hardest thing in the world to do, even though it can be the most appreciated – a concept many a love ballad has tapped into. ‘Sorry’ is a rare word in public life, too. For a recent example, you only have to look at the heartbreaking Grenfell Tower disaster: it occurred on 14 June, but it wasn’t until 3 July that an apology emerged from a beleaguered Kensington and Chelsea council. ‘No buts, no ifs, no excuses,’ said its new leader, Elizabeth Campbell. ‘I am truly sorry.’ Survivor groups were unimpressed and dismissed it as too little, too late. Should it be so hard to say sorry?


Fear of liability

Grenfell may be an extreme case. But even on a more routine level, when things go wrong, organisations and their representatives often retreat behind a wall of silence, as if they’ve been ordered to let the lawyers sort it out. And this is what, in many people’s eyes, is at the heart of the problem – compensation culture. Public and private bodies and the people who work for them have become so fearful of being sued for vast sums that they clam up for fear of inadvertently admitting liability for a mistake.

They may have good reason. For example, the volume and value of clinical negligence claims in the healthcare sector have soared. In 2008, NHS trusts in England paid out £583m in claims. By 2015-16 that figure had reached £1.4bn (NHSLA, 2016). To put that into context, the net deficit in the NHS in the same yearly period was £1.85bn (Dunn et al, 2016).

So compensation is big business, especially for the lawyers. In their defence, some, such as the Society of Clinical Injury Lawyers, argue that the key reason for the problem is in fact the inability of the NHS simply to say sorry, admit liability and pay up. Instead, it denies responsibility, drags out cases and pushes up costs.

A hint that change is on the agenda came earlier this year when the NHS Litigation Authority was rebranded as NHS Resolution. If there is change, perhaps the power of the humble apology will hold sway once more.

Last year, Rebecca Paine from Plymouth,  whose baby died after staff had failed to escalate the case said that she would never have taken legal action if the hospital had apologised. ‘I just felt forgotten about. I just wanted an apology, but it never came,’ she said (BBC, 2016).


A lawful sorry

So how do we reinstate the sense that offering a genuine, heartfelt apology is the right thing to do, and not an admission of liability?

One answer, oddly enough, is legislation. This is exactly what has happened in England, Wales and most recently, Scotland. The Apologies (Scotland) Act came into force in June, and states that an apology is ‘not admissible as evidence of anything relevant to the determination of liability... and cannot be used in any other way to the prejudice of the person by or on behalf of whom the apology was made’.

So it’s enshrined in law that you can say sorry without it putting you in a tight spot (it’s not a completely free ride, as children’s hearings, fatal accident enquiries and defamation proceedings are excluded).

This new law for Scotland is catching up with the 2006 Compensation Act for England and Wales, which says that an apology or other offer to remedy or repair an accident or error is not an admission of liability. The idea behind this bill was to give professionals extra protection and to discourage compensation culture, but at the same time protect those with valid claims.

But the idea that this latest legislation is a specific response to the surge in compensation claims is dismissed by Dr Gordon McDavid, senior medicolegal adviser at the Medical Protection Society (MPS) in Scotland. ‘Healthcare professionals already have a duty to be open and honest in their dealings with patients,’ he says. ‘This is clearly set out by the BMA, NMC and other bodies.’

Indeed, when submitting evidence for the recent Apologies Act, the NMC pointed out that its professional standards code, in particular the ‘duty of candour’, says that nurses and midwives should be ‘open and candid with service users about all aspects of care and treatment, including when any mistakes or harm have taken place’.

The NMC have also produced a series of case studies to help nurses and midwives understand the code.

‘The professional “duty of candour” is about being open and honest when things go wrong,’ says an NMC spokesperson. ’The code clearly sets out how nurses and midwives should exercise their professional duties in this area. Our guidance and case studies will help to support community practitioners to understand what the “duty of candour” means for them in their everyday practice.’

In that case, what is the point of the legislation? ‘It helps to clarify the situation for wider society,’ says Dr McDavid. ‘For healthcare professionals, it just gives a bit more protection and lets them get on with the job.

‘We receive a lot of enquiries from doctors who find themselves in difficult situations. Our stance is that an apology is a good thing. If you are open and conciliatory from the outset, it sets a good tone and might actually reduce the likelihood of complaints, referrals and claims.’

The new legislation also goes so far as to define an apology. The danger here is that a legal definition is the total opposite of genuine and heartfelt, which is what gives an apology its substance. Dr McDavid says the MPS was wary of this possibility: ‘We pointed out that legislation can be a blunt instrument. It runs the risk of holding a gun to people, which is not the way apologies should work. So the legislation was drafted to allow a degree of freedom and interpretation; the last thing it needed was to be prescriptive. It’s not turning professionals into robots – it gives them the freedom to use their initiative, to build relationships with the people they are serving and to have meaningful discussions.’


Keep it real

In its recent Striking A Balance campaign, the MPS argues that only reform of the legal framework can turn the tide of clinical negligence claims (MPS, 2017). But the apology remains vital for the individuals involved. On a personal level, an honest ‘sorry’ has meaning. Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of the book, The Power of Apology, illuminates just how deep that meaning can be.

‘Apology is not just something we do to be polite,’ she says. ‘It is an important social ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It can do more than soothe wounds or mend relationships. In some instances it has the ability to rehabilitate an individual, resolve conflicts and restore social harmony.’ She adds that while saying sorry cannot undo the harmful effects of past actions, ‘paradoxically, if done sincerely and effectively, this is precisely what an apology manages to do’.

When an apology doesn’t materialise, the wronged person often becomes resentful, angry and tense. This can build to the point where it harms mental and physical health. A simple act of contrition can dispel all this. ‘The validation is incredibly healing,’ says Beverly. ‘We want our feelings to be acknowledged. We want the other person to admit they have hurt us. We want them to say they were wrong. This removes their power to be a threat or an enemy.’

An apology can also help the wrongdoer. ‘The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we can feel when we’ve hurt another person can eat away at us. When we apologise, we feel better because our guilt has been assuaged. If the other person accepts our apology, we feel forgiven and can therefore forgive ourselves more easily.’

But if an apology is to really work, it has to be meaningful. For Beverly, this means communicating regret, responsibility, and remedy. ‘You need to express regret for having caused inconvenience, hurt or damage. You need to accept responsibility for your actions, which means not blaming anyone else and not making excuses. And you need to state your willingness to remedy the situation, either by promising to not repeat your action or working towards not making the same mistake again.’

So the apology itself has clear power. Yes, legislation offers extra reassurance, but an apology doesn’t seem to depend on a legal framework, not if it holds genuine remorse and an acknowledgement that lessons will be learnt. Kensington and Chelsea council has found this out the hard way, but perhaps others will also learn from what happened. By understanding the power of apology, perhaps ‘sorry’ will become a little less hard to say. 

Alison Wood-Brooks

The science of sorry

Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, was lead author of the 2013 research paper I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Here, she reveals the meanings behind her findings.

What role does the simple apology play in relationships between people?

Research shows that an apology is necessary to restore trust between people after it has been violated or broken. Other things can help restore trust when paired with an apology, such as a promise to change in the future, but an apology is a necessary first step. Even in situations where there has been no violation or broken trust, expressing an apology for someone else’s misfortune (‘I’m sorry for your loss’, ‘I’m sorry your flight was delayed’) represents an expression of empathic concern that increases trust. These are called ‘superfluous apologies’ – apologising for something that was clearly outside your control. In contrast, a traditional apology includes an admission of guilt, wrongdoing or blame.

What are people’s reactions to superfluous apologies?

When people receive a superfluous apology such as ‘I’m sorry about the rain’, they are much more likely to show trust, even to a complete stranger in a train station. In our study, people were more likely to lend their mobile phone to a stranger if they said ‘I’m sorry about the rain, can I borrow your phone?’ compared with just saying ‘Can I borrow your phone?’

Can an apology go too far? Might it even be seen as manipulative?

It is possible to go too far. We suspect that apologising too frequently can tarnish the value and impact of your apology. For example, we have found evidence that apologising more than twice for the same violation during one interaction causes people to view you as neurotic (especially following small violations). You’re also likely to be seen as manipulative if others view your intentions as overly strategic. In this respect, perceptions of sincerity matter. If the recipient of your apology thinks that you don’t really mean it, and you are only apologising to be seen as trustworthy, then the apology is unlikely to be effective.


Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016. See: legislation.gov.uk/asp/2016/5/contents/enacted (accessed 21 July 2017).

BBC News (2016). NHS negligence claims hit £1.4bn. See: bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36327310 (accessed 21 July 2017).

Brooks AW, Dai H, Schweitzer ME. (2013) I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychological and Personality Science 5(4): 467-74.

Dunn P, McKenna H, Murray R. (2016) Deficits in the NHS 2016. See: kingsfund.org.uk/sites/files/kf/field/field_publication_file/Deficits_in_the_NHS_Kings_Fund_July_2016_1.pdf (accessed 22 July 2017).

Medical Protection Society. (2017) Clinical negligence costs: striking a balance. See: medicalprotection.org/docs/default-source/sab-docs/6092-striking-a-balance-briefing-doc_v2.pdf (accessed 22 July 2017).

NHS Litigation Authority. (2016) Annual report and accounts 2015/16. See: nhsla.com/AboutUs/Documents/NHS_Litigation_Authority_Annual_Report_and_Accounts_2015-2016.pdf (accessed 22 July 2017).

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