Insights on how to make an effective apology.
Four months after the infamous Oscar slap, Will Smith broke his silence and released his apology on Youtube. With a sincere and somber tone, I have offered apologies to multiple individuals and addressed a number of questions.
Was his apology effective? How do you even measure the effectiveness of an apology?
Judaism’s process of teshuvah, often translated as “repentance” but more accurately means a return to our best selves, provides a comprehensive and insightful guide to a heartfelt apology.
How well did Will Smith’s apology measure up?
1. Make sure your apology is about the offended, not about you.
Smith told the audience that he reached out to Chris Rock who didn’t wish to speak to him. Making a public apology to an individual that you know is not ready to hear you don’t signal a good start. It’s an indication that Smith was a little more interested in repairing his reputation than mending the rift in their relationship.
2. Keep the thoughts and feelings of the offended party in mind.
Will Smith acknowledged that his “behavior was unacceptable and I’m here whenever you’re ready to talk.” That’s a nice intro. But Smith didn’t specifically list what it is he did wrong. There is no mention that he affected physical pain and embarrassment on an international scale. That he put Chris in an impossible situation. He failed to demonstrate that he put any thought into Chris Rock’s perspective on him.
3. Consider the repercussions of your actions in a macro sense.
Smith moved on to other individuals including Chris Rock’s mother and his family, when he acknowledged “how many people got hurt in that moment.” Later on in the video he apologized to the other nominees that he took the attention and special moments away from that evening. This shows he thought about the moment beyond his own personal sphere of him.
4. The cornerstone of an apology is the recognition that you have damaged your relationship.
This realization was particularly potent when Smith addressed the damage done to his relationship with Chris’s brother, Tony. “We had a great relationship. You know, Tony Rock was my man and this is probably irreparable.” This was possibly the most authentic moment of the whole video. But it’s a little perplexing that Smith only expressed this level of regret about Tony Rock and no one else. It’s a “so close but so far” moment.
5. Demonstrate that you’ve attained new understandings.
Smith shared that he’s been “replaying and understanding the nuances, and the complexities of the moment.” Unfortunately, actually sharing those nuanced understandings didn’t happen. It is articulating those nuances that truly elevates an apology. Without showing that you’ve attained that new understanding, you can reflect on a moment for a lifetime, and it won’t make a difference.
6. Accept 100% responsibility for your part in the offense, whether the other person was right or wrong.
The above reflection served as a preface for the following: “There is no part of me that thinks that is the right way to behave in that moment. There’s no part of me that thinks that’s the optimal way to handle a feeling of disrespect or insults.” To his credit, Will Smith did not give any excuse for his behavior. There’s no, “I was wrong but…” To do otherwise is to imply that you want an apology from the other person. That never goes over well.
7. Identifying the harm done shows you understand what it takes to repair the pain.
The final apology was to “people who looked up to him.” Smith said, “Disappointing people is my central trauma… It hurts me to know that I didn’t live up to people’s image and impression of me.” He jumped back to focusing on himself, as opposed to those he offended. “I’m trying to be remorseful without being ashamed of myself.” So much of this section was about Will trying to apologize while protecting his own emotional wellbeing from him. He had virtually no acknowledgment that as a role model and a celebrity, he significantly impacts what is accepted and normalized in society, that by striking out, he made violence and vocal berating more acceptable.
8. Without a clear, concrete plan, you are likely to make the same mistakes again.
Smith ended the video with a promise that he is “committed to putting light and love and joy into the world.” These words rang hollow as if they were pulled from his Oscar acceptance speech spoken an hour after the slap when he said, “I’m being called on to love people… I wanna be a vessel for love.” There’s no mention of how he has grown since March. The commitment to do better, coupled with a realistic plan of action, are essential steps in the teshuvah process. Let’s hope Will Smith has one.
So, how does Will Smith’s apology measure up?
He’s on point where he acknowledged the specifics of his consequences and the damage he did to others. When he made the apology about himself, it’s empty. Apologies require awareness of exactly what you have done wrong, why it hurt someone so much, and how you’re going to stop the behavior in the future. Those are the essential ingredients of an effective apology that can enable you to become a better person and bring you closer to those you have hurt.
Ultimately no one knows what is in Will Smith’s heart. It’s not for me to judge. But I am thankful for the insights he gave me into the process of genuine repentance as we geared up for the High Holiday season.