A week ago, driving out of the Cascades near Santiam Junction, I stopped at a Forest Service Trailhead to use a restroom. Because the door was ajar, I started to open it.

“HEY!!!!”  I heard.

Had I been a better person, I would have apologized.  I think I did mutter “Sorry.”  But I took the coward’s way out.  The car was still running, I got into it and sped out of the parking lot to US 20 and hightailed it back out of the mountains.  I didn’t want the user to see me.

My wife laughed.  “Why didn’t he lock the door?”  “Or,” she continued, “why didn’t he just say ‘Occupied!!’”   Good question.  He should have been more embarrassed than I.


I went out to the community college today, since it was my day to tutor.  It had been a good week with no further “HEY’S”. I  did a difficult but worthwhile exploratory hike in the Cascades, where I hadn’t been before but was going to lead a hike there in a month.

When I got to the college, the parking lot looked empty.  I had a sense something was wrong, and sure enough, the doors were locked.  I returned to the car, googled the college’s calendar, and found there was a conference that day, so no school.  I was annoyed.  This sort of stuff happened when I volunteered in Tucson schools, too.  They would have a holiday and nobody told me.  I showed up and wasted my time.  I didn’t get much of an apology, either. It was so bad, I had to check each Friday to see if there were any days the following week where I wouldn’t be needed.

Sometimes, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. In 2003, I interviewed for a teaching position in quality improvement with the American College of Physician Executives.  After not hearing from them for a month, I sent an e-mail, a letter, and phoned them.  I received no reply.  That’s uncalled for.  Yes, people are busy, but this is a 30 second e-mail (“we will not be hiring you” takes about 24 seconds.  I timed it).  I left the organization, and as I expected, they would notice. Money counts.  I received a call to ask why I hadn’t renewed my membership.  I told them why.  Within a minute, the Executive Vice President was talking to me.  I didn’t mention the name of the man who should have notified me.  I didn’t want to cause trouble for him.  It was a classy move on my part. I got a call a day later from the individual at fault, who said, “I guess I should be sorry.”  YOU GUESS?  I wasn’t demanding a job; I only wanted to know what the results of the interview were (which I had long since guessed).  That is not an apology.  You don’t guess with apologies.  That makes the situation worse.  You make an apology CLEAR.

I’ve done a lot of wrong in my life, so I have gotten a lot better at apologies.  For those who haven’t apologized much, the first rule is do it with empathy.  Mean it.  You would be amazed at how much that helps.  That means you must convey a sense that you really are sorry, even if you aren’t. That is step one.  Guys, take note of this, when you deal with women.

Yes, step one.  For there are two more steps.  Good apologies must be done right.

Second, say what you believe the consequences of your action caused.  Yes.  I apologized to my wife for something once, and I apologized for the wrong thing.  Yeah, really. What I thought I had done badly was not the issue, it was something else.  Wow, that’s being clueless.  I plead guilty.  But at least by saying what I thought I did wrong, I discovered my real error.  That mattered.

The third and final step is to say what you will do in the future to ensure, as best as you can, that the mistake does not occur again.  My mother once refused a CT head scan, and we were told the scan was normal.  Yes.  Really.  Five months later, when we took her for a “repeat” scan, we learned that she had never had one.  My father and I went to the CEO of a hospital to ask how this could happen.  All we heard was how many printouts of data the CEO had to deal with daily.  Think we cared?

Witness a good apology:  A psychiatrist reamed me out over the phone about an opinion I had given about a patient he was seeing.  “You didn’t spend enough time with the patient.”  I was speechless, and in that time of “less”, he hung up.  That was skunk anger, which is not good coming from a psychiatrist.  Important rule in medicine: never believe what a patient tells you another doctor said.  Come to think of it, it’s a good rule in life, too.

Two days later, the psychiatrist called me, apologized for his behavior, which he said must have stunned me.  “I have since spoken to a several other people about you, and they told me what a good doctor you are.  I am sorry I treated you that way.  I hope you will forgive me.”

Forgive?  Hell, it made my day.

Here’s how apologies should not be done:  A man from Comcast was to look at the house when we wanted to install wi-fi.  He gave me a window of time when he would show up, and he didn’t come.  I had his number, calling it periodically for 3 hours, getting voice mail and no responses.  It wasted my whole afternoon.  About 4:30, I got a call with a cheery, “How are you doing?”  I think most of us might say that we weren’t doing particularly well at the moment, and I told him that.  “Oh, sorry about that.  We had a sudden meeting I couldn’t miss.”

I’ve been in management.  People have meetings.  Sometimes, they are “right now” meetings.   But when the guy who installs my phone can’t get a message, doesn’t call me until three hours later, it doesn’t give me confidence in the telephone service.  What should he have done?  “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to be at least three hours late.  I have an urgent meeting, I didn’t know about it, and I will work late if you will allow me to come over at 5 tonight.  I know it is important for you.  Again, I am sorry.”

That works.  Instead, the next day, when he finally arrived, he mentioned how overloaded he was, with work, but the fact he had driven back from Boulder to Eugene after the Oregon-Colorado football game.  Do you think I cared?  Most people aren’t interested in a service provider’s using their vacation as an excuse.  A lot of people don’t get to take vacations.

I’ll go back out to the school on Tuesday.  They forgot.  It’s an honest mistake.  They are entitled to that.  They will apologize.  If they don’t, I won’t call them out on it.

But I will be disappointed in them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: