Be Sure to Apologize after You Act Like a Jerk
In January of 2018, in the middle of the college football national championship game, Nick Saban substituted out his quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had led Alabama to its second consecutive national title game. Saban sent in his true freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa, who by all accounts was expected to be the next great quarterback. In the final moments of the game with Alabama trailing, Tua delivered a strike to his wide receiver for the game-winning touchdown. For the next eight months, something of a quarterback controversy brewed in Tuscaloosa. For the 2018 season, would Alabama’s quarterback be the junior who had lead the team for two years or the young QB who had won the hearts and imaginations of fans over the course of two quarters of football? And it was this question that hounded Nick Saban in every interview he gave over that time. Ultimately, Tagovailoa started the season opener in 2018 and again led Alabama to a victory, this time over Louisville. After the game, sideline reporter Maria Taylor asked Saban what he had learned about his quarterback situation. He responded poorly: “Well, I still like both guys. I think both guys are good players. I think both guys can help our team, alright? So why do you continually try to get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to. So quit askin’!” A short time later, Saban called Taylor and apologized for his bad behavior. Then he addressed at his press conference and took ownership for his inappropriate response. This is an example of exactly what should happen when you behave badly. You show contrition and offer an apology to the person toward whom your words or actions were directed. What you should not do is make excuses for your bad acts.
Do not excuse your bad behavior
I was at a docket call recently with a judge whose assistant is notorious for sending nasty emails and cussing lawyers who don’t do things the way she likes it. Before the judge entered the courtroom, she made us all be quiet and listen to describe, then excuse her own bad behavior. She told the room full of lawyers the reason she acted as she does is because she wants to “mentor” lawyers. Not every lawyer has someone to show them the way, so she has put that mantle upon herself. She said she knows people forward her emails to each other and talk about her behind her back, but this only serves to make her stronger and “want to help you more.” Honestly, she sounded like an abusive parent who tells the child, “I’m doing this for your own good,” or “You made me do it.” This is not the appropriate response when you act out. Making excuses for your bad acts will build resentment and preclude any possibility of a good relationship.
Apologizing makes all the difference
It’s a veritable certainty there will be occasions that you behave badly. And when you do, you need to have the humility to recognize your wrongdoing and be quick with an apology. Often the longer you wait to apologize, the harder it gets to do so.
Here’s a story that fellow lawyer @frozensooner shared on Twitter:
Two days ago, had a phone call with [opposing counsel] that, well, didn’t go like he’d expected. I didn’t agree with him on his interpretation of the contract, and I didn’t agree with his characterization of my client’s actions. He got fairly heated, and when I said, “It was nice talking to you,” he responded “I wish I could say the same.” This is someone who’s a junior partner at a fairly large firm. Not Latham, but definitely at least a major player in several states. I was taken somewhat aback. 10 minutes later, he emailed an apology. Honestly, that’s all it took. I appreciated that he did that. We all get hot under the collar and say things we regret. An apology isn’t necessarily as good as just not doing it, but it gives a look at your character. It takes a big person to apologize sometimes.
What makes for a good apology?
Let’s start with what does not make for a good apology – “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.” This is not an apology. It is nothing. Actually, it’s not nothing, because it’s likely to fuel the fire you kindled when you acted like a jerk, rather than squelch it.
A good apology has two components: contrition and specificity. When you apologize for bad behavior, you should address specifically what you said or did wrong. And your apology should reflect remorse for your deeds.
We all exhibit bad behavior sometimes. It’s just going to happen. But the next time you offend opposing counsel or your assistant or your spouse, be quick to recognize your misstep and apologize.
Photo by Honza Sterba.