August 17, 2019

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Opinion

The power of the personal apology

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2016 (1093 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — There will be many lasting images from the Rio Olympics.

The dominance of Canada’s women. The bromance between Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse and Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt. The gross green water in the diving pool.

But if politicians want to take a lesson away from this games, it isn’t what happened on the field that could prove most enlightening.

Elliotte Friedman is best known as a hockey reporter, but for the Rio Olympics, he was called upon to work as a swimming commentator. On Aug. 12, during the men’s individual 200-metre medley, he mixed up U.S. swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, saying Lochte had won and Phelps, who has won more gold medals than 65 other countries combined, was fourth.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2016 (1093 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — There will be many lasting images from the Rio Olympics.

The dominance of Canada’s women. The bromance between Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse and Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt. The gross green water in the diving pool.

But if politicians want to take a lesson away from this games, it isn’t what happened on the field that could prove most enlightening.

Elliotte Friedman is best known as a hockey reporter, but for the Rio Olympics, he was called upon to work as a swimming commentator. On Aug. 12, during the men’s individual 200-metre medley, he mixed up U.S. swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, saying Lochte had won and Phelps, who has won more gold medals than 65 other countries combined, was fourth.

Minutes after realizing his mistake, Friedman took to Twitter to apologize.

"I’m sorry, everyone. I blew it. No excuses."

In an interview with Sports Illustrated the next day, Friedman did two things. He refused to hide and he refused to blame a single other soul for the mistake. He made clear he was punishing himself — he hadn’t eaten or slept. But even given the chance to use anything or anyone to explain his misstep, he would not.

We all have been there, maybe not in making a mistake that is broadcast for an entire country to hear, but few among us can say we haven’t stayed awake at night worrying about an error, a stupid thing we said or did.

How Friedman responded is what stands out. By apologizing immediately and taking all the blame, and by acknowledging what happened was eating him up inside, he made everyone remember he was just a human being who seemed truly sorry for what he had done.

If you’re beating yourself up already, most (though not all) people will feel like jerks for piling on to kick you when you’re already down. The hordes of social-media couch critics who had pounced on Friedman’s mistake with relish quickly fell silent.

Sure, some people will remember that Friedman screwed up, but most of them will also remember he took his licks and didn’t pass the buck, a testament to his character that leaves it bathed in a positive glow.

It’s not always this way. Politicians are often terrified to admit they messed up. In May, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to be the House of Commons disciplinarian to stop the other parties from stalling a vote, accidentally elbowing NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the process, he did what many of us are likely to do immediately… which is to issue a non-apology apology.

Trudeau’s first reaction after the incident was to apologize only "if anyone feels that they were impacted by my actions." He was compelled to behave the way he had, he said, because the others were acting like mischievous brats and needed to be stopped.

It took him 24 hours, and the help of a team of advisers, to make a more unequivocal apology and admit he was in the wrong.

Had Trudeau stood up right away and simply said, "I shouldn’t have done that. I was impulsive and I didn’t use proper judgment," it wouldn’t have stopped the incident in its tracks. But it would have taken a lot of the sting out of critics who afterward spent days using it to declare him the worst human to ever breathe air in the House of Commons.

Health Minister Jane Philpott showed she was possibly ready to "pull a Friedman" this week. After being caught by the Conservatives spending $1,700 in a single day on limos to ferry her about the Toronto area, Philpott’s office took a few hours to look at the situation and come up with a response.

Yes. She did it. It was wrong. Also, here are other examples of when this limousine service was booked; yes, the minister knew it was owned by someone who volunteered for her election campaign last year; and yes, she is taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

There is a lot that is troubling about a minister spending huge amounts of money on limousines owned by someone who helped get her elected, but chances are Philpott’s response will stem the damage this could cause her and the Liberals in general. It surely will reduce the air time given to the story.

I wrote earlier this year that we all need to be more accepting of apologies. That’s still true. But it’s easier to accept an apology if it’s given quickly and without any attempt to shift the blame.

You’re never going to win a gold medal for "pulling a Friedman," but the value of being forgiven is also pretty high.

Mia Rabson is the Winnipeg Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @mrabson

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