By Steve Adubato, PhD
Last week, I interviewed US Senate candidate Jon Corzine for a television program I host. He wanted to talk about his agenda in this race, but before that, I had to ask him about the really stupid comments he allegedly made about Italian-Americans.
I'm sure you've heard. Corzine met a small group of Italian-American businessmen in a Newark restaurant called Michalangelo's. According to someone who was there, when Corzine was introduced to a man named David Stein, he said, "He's not Italian is he? Oh, I guess he's your Jewish lawyer who is here to get the rest of you out of jail." Ouch!
The other ethnic gem Corzine offered occurred when he was introduced to an Italian-American guy in the construction business. Corzine's greeting; "Oh, you make cement shoes!" A future column will talk about humor as a communication tool. This one deals with the best way to deal with an obvious mistake and the ability to say "I'M SORRY!"
Clearly Jon Corzine hasn't handled this "Italian-American thing" very well. When word got out about what he had said, he called a press conference and announced, "I shouldn't have said what I am reported to have said…And if I did, I apologized for them, and I apologize for them again." Right then, I thought he had blown a golden opportunity to face this thing head on and say, "I'm really sorry. I have no rational explanation. I was trying to be funny. I wasn't and it was stupid. Again, I'm sorry." We all say stupid things and most people are forgiving when we do. Corzine later said, after much confusion, that he was pretty confident that he himself was Italian. Believe me, you know when you're Italian. His campaign also insisted he didn't use the word "Jewish" when referring to Mr. Stein. He held another press conference and said he was being threatened by an Italian-American guy who wanted a job in the Corzine campaign and didn't get it --Corzine the victim.
Look, I respect Jon Corzine. Everyone who knows him well has nothing but good things to say about him. I'm confident that he didn't mean to offend those of us whose ancestors came from Italy. But his handling of this first communication crisis of his Senate campaign has been disastrous. That's why I wanted to give him a chance in the TV interview to clear the air. No such luck. When I asked him about what he was "reported to have said," he launched into a long-winded explanation about how he didn't remember saying these things but that it was possible that he had. He disputed the exact location in which it allegedly happened. He talked about the motives of his accusers.
Corzine did it again. He missed an opportunity to deal head on with his stupid mistake in a clear, concise way. He could have dealt with it in less than a minute if he was just willing to say; "I SCREWED UP!" No explanations. No hedging. No quibbling about the details. No questioning of other's motives. No trying to be the victim. This is a critical communication issue. It's about handling a mistake, big or small, at work, home or in your personal life.
I've always found that saying "I'm sorry" in no uncertain terms as quickly as possible gives me the best chance of clearing the air: "Sorry, I was wrong. I shouldn't have said what I did. There's no excuse." A brief explanation ("I was having a really bad day") is okay. But the more I don't take full responsibility for what I did, the harder it is to move on. If it's a matter of principle, and I'm in the right, that's another story.
As nice a guy as Jon Corzine seems to be, his handling of this "Italian thing" has made it harder for him to move on. He looks like a guy who can't fully own up to his own mistake. He doesn't come off as a stand-up guy, which he may well be.
Communication tip for the week: We all screw up. The key is what you do when it happens. Admit it immediately and concisely. Most people will understand the mistake and respect your ability to apologize without conditions.