I’ve recently been thinking about how we give and receive apologies and why sometimes an apology doesn’t seem to take. Recently, I was working with someone who was the recipient of some unexpectedly nasty comments. He decided to confront his friend about this and, while his friend apologized quickly, he also gave multiple excuses for his behavior. It was clear to my client that the apology was insincere. It felt hollow and rather than leaving him feeling better, it left him discontent.
Why was he still feeling dissatisfied? I think it was because he felt the person didn’t really mean it. When someone recounts all the reasons why they did something, it feels as if they are trying to excuse their behavior, rather than take responsibility for it. It seems that accepting what you’ve done, no matter what the extenuating circumstances, is an import component of an effective apology. It takes courage to accept the reality of our hurtful behavior, and not make excuses in order to defend ourselves. We want others to have a positive image of us and we don’t like to think of ourselves as thoughtless. Yet, to truly apologize we have to tolerate our own distress, and without excuses, admit that we were at fault.
Aside from our total honesty in admitting fault, I think there is another important aspect to apologizing. It involves acknowledging how our behavior has affected the other person and being able to see the situation from their point of view.
Let’s say you’re 15 minutes late to meet your friend for lunch. Then just as you were leaving, you had to take an important call that couldn’t wait. So, instead of explaining what happened to make you late, you first describe how your friend might have felt. What were her thoughts and feelings as she was left waiting for you to arrive? Here are some possible statements that would indicate you understood her experience:
“Oh my gosh, I’ve left you sitting here for 15 minutes and you must have been concerned about where I was. That’s a miserable feeling not knowing if I was coming or not. “
“You didn’t get a text or anything to let you know that I was detained. I know, I don’t like it when someone does that to me. It makes me uncertain and even makes me wonder if I’ve gotten the meeting time wrong.”
“I suspect it also might have made you feel that you’re not all that important to me. I want you to know I was especially looking forward to our meeting and value our friendship. I’m really annoyed with myself for having messed things up. Will you accept my apology?”
Being addressed empathetically allows the other person to know their emotions are being seen as important, and that you are aware of the consequences of your action. No matter why we’ve upset someone, if we first acknowledge their experience we are letting them know that we care about them. I think this is the healing part of an apology At least for me, when I have received an apology that speaks to my experience, I feel that my hurt has been taken care of and that my heart is open again.
I only we all could remember to do this simple step of taking another’s point of view before trying to defend our behavior. Validating the other person’s experience would, I believe, avoid a lot of unintended hurt. To do this, I think we need to have a pause to stop our automatic defense of ourselves, and to instead accept our imperfections and humanity. Perhaps we defend ourselves rather than just accept ourselves. Sometimes we will be inconsiderate. Sometimes we may even be intentionally hurtful. All of these behaviors are part of being human. When we can accept our imperfections, we can learn from our mistakes and know that this one misstep does not define who we are. Holding compassion for ourselves when we make mistakes can help us accept responsibility for our actions, and allow us to understand the other person’s experience rather than focus on ourselves. There will be time later to give our own explanations what happened and find a way to make amends.
So, as I consider all the parts that make an apology really effective, I see it as a four part process. I think that these are the steps that I would include:
Offer an apology: “I’m so sorry.”
Except blame for what happened: “This was entirely my fault.”
Be empathetic: “You’ve been inconvenienced and annoyed and I can see why.”
Make amends: “How can I make this up to you.”