Trump and Clinton Are Case Studies in How Not to Apologize

Researchers have determined what constitutes a "full apology.'' We're sorry to tell you both candidates fall short, though one more than the other.

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By Gregg Ward

Mandel Ngan | Getty Images
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (R) and US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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These days it seems like everyone's apologizing. Wells Fargo is sorry for the cross-selling scandal; Samsung for the exploding Note7's; Donald Trump for the 2005 "hot mic'' tape in which boasted of sexually assaulting women; and Hillary Clinton again and again for those "damn" emails.

Are their apologies effective? Are they convincing? Will they change minds and salvage damaged brands? Recently, psychological scientists and organizational development experts have identified seven crucial components of a "Full Apology." These range from "owning the mistake," and "expressing empathy," to "promising "never again,' and "offering to make amends." Each component is important, and while respectful leaders will ensure that they engage in each when they apologize, some carry more weight than others.

Sincerity is an intangible factor that plays a role in every apology. Without being genuinely contrite, any "apology" is a waste of time and effort which could make a bad situation even worse. Here are the seven components of a Full Apology and grading of the presidential candidates' most recent apologies.

1. Own your behavior that caused hurt.

The first step in any apology is admitting that you know you did or said something that hurt someone else. This is the most crucial step -- don't even bother apologizing if you're not going to admit this.

Trump admitted in his Twitter, Facebook video and debate that that was his voice on the video, but he could have been more specific about admitting that he knew it was hurtful. Grade: B

Clinton admitted repeatedly that she made a mistake in using a single email account to conduct State Department and personal business. Grade: A

Related: 10 Harsh Lessons That Will Make You More Successful

2. Acknowledge that you hurt them.

Acknowledging the pain you caused is a powerful part in any effective apology. Without it, the person you're apologizing to feels like you don't really empathesize with their pain. This is the second most important part of any apology.

Trump doesn't seem to believe anyone was hurt by his behavior, which he calls "locker room talk." This despite the fact that the targets of his behavior have gone on record as being hurt by it. Grade: F.

Clinton doesn't seem to think anyone or the government was hurt by her behavior. Grade: F.

3. Make no excuses.

Excuses shif blame off of your and onto someone or something else. Excuses are self-serving. In fact, the moment you say "I'm sorry, but…" or "I didn't mean to…" you immediately undermine your apology. An effective apology contains the words "There are no excuses. I did it. I'm responsible."

Trump called it "locker room banter" essentially saying it's no big deal. He's essentially minimalizing the behavior, making excuses for it. Grade: F.

Clinton has said "there are no excuses" and "I take responsibility." Grade: A.

Related: 10 Unmistakable Habits of Utterly Authentic People

4. Ask for forgiveness.

When you say the words "I'm sorry" you need to ask for forgiveness but you can't take for granted you will receive it. Asking for forgiveness puts power back into the hands of those you hurt.

Trump apologized, but did not ask for forgiveness. Grade: C-.

Clinton apologized, but did not ask for forgiveness. Grade: C-.

5. Promise to never repeat the behavior.

Promising to never to engage in the hurtful behavior again tells the person you've hurt that you will pay more close attention to your words and actions in the future.

Trump promised to be a "better man " but wasn't specific about what that means. Grade: C.

Clinton said "if I had it to do over again, I certainly wouldn't do it." Grade: B.

6. Offer to make amends.

It's not enough to just apologize and say "let's move on." You must offer to make it up to the individual you hurt in a meaningful way that they will appreciate, and they must have the opportunity to say "no."

Trump made no offer of amends to any of the injured parties and recently said he plans to sue each of the women after the election. Grade: F.

Clinton made no offer to make amends, but it's not clear who the injured parties are. Grade: D.

Related: 10 Habits That Will Make You Much Happier

7. Start making amends.

Actions speak louder than words. Even if the person you hurt doesn't want you to make amends, you should still try to anyway.

Trump – Not happening. Grade: F.

Clinton – Not Happening. Grade: F.

Overall, the apologies from both Trump and Clinton fall short in key areas, and sincerity is questionable in Trump's case. Their overall grades…

Trump gets a "D." He seemed insincere as though he was only making an apology because he got caught.

Clinton gets a "B-minus." She seemed sincere, but whether it will change anyone's mind Doubtful.

No matter how well you execute your "Full Apology" it is the beginning of a process, not the end. There's a lot more work to be done after you've said "I'm sorry."

Gregg Ward

Executive Leadership Advisor

Executive Leadership Advisor, Gregg Ward, is the author of “The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways To Influence Without Intimidation” and specializes in the areas of workplace respect and etiquette. Ward is a Certified Management Consultant and Adjunct Professor for San Diego State and Cal State and helps train the U.S. Navy on issues of conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and teamwork. Ward is the CEO of The Gregg Ward Group, a San Diego-based leadership consultancy serving Fortune 500 companies, universities and government agencies.

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