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Are You Really Sorry?

Apologizing is hard. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an insincere apology, you know how demoralizing that feels. In stark contrast, a good apology is elixir for relationship wounds.

Mara and Jack had been living together for a year. While dusting, Mara accidentally knocked over a glass figurine and it shattered against the tile floor. Unfortunately, it was the cherished award Jack received for his fine work in advertising.

Mara’s first impulse was to hide the evidence. Panicking, she entertained fantasies of running away to avoid his anger and upset.

Mara’s second impulse was to posture up and convince both Jack and her guilty conscience that this mishap was not such a big deal. “Objects are just objects,” she told herself. “It is not as if I killed someone!” Of course, that is true. But that kind of an attitude might not serve her relationship with Jack.

Admitting we did something “wrong” is a humbling experience. It takes strength to withstand the assault to our egos. Many of us pride ourselves on not making mistakes.

Some of us were harshly berated for making mistakes when we were young. As a consequence, even though we are adults, we continue the tradition and berate ourselves just like our parents did. Most of us intellectually understand that perfection is not a realistic standard — everyone of us has flaws and makes mistakes — yet “owning” our mistakes can be hard if not painful and scary. Still, we must be accountable for our actions.

The skill of knowing when and how to apologize is one that greatly serves us all and our valued relationships.

So, what makes a good apology?

The late Randy Pausch, in his beautiful book, The Last Lecture, teaches us how to apologize. I read his instructions in 2008 and have incorporated them into my apologies ever since with much success. Pausch teaches that a proper apology has three parts:

  1. A statement of apology including what you did that you feel was wrong.

  2. A statement that demonstrates you understand how what you did affected the other (empathy).

  3. A statement showing your desire to make amends and asking how to make amends.

In truth, Mara was deeply sorry. So, her third impulse was to gather strength and courage to look Jack right in the eye and say, “I broke your glass award. I know how much it meant to you. I know it’s irreplaceable. I understand how upsetting it must be to lose a cherished possession. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, please tell me. In the meantime, I understand if you are angry and I am deeply sorry.”

Jack was upset but he felt Mara's remorse and concern. Her heartfelt apology made it possible for Jack to be sad for the loss of something he cared about without needing to blame or to punish Mara.

Learning about a good apology made me ponder: what makes a bad apology?

  • Blaming the person to whom you are apologizing. “I’m sorry I broke your award but you should not have left it there." Whether that is true or not is beside the point now. Shifting blame avoids accountability. Blaming the person you hurt is not a good strategy.

  • Beating yourself up instead of being accountable. "I'm sorry I broke your award. I'm a terrible person. I always make mistakes. You should leave me." That just makes it about you and forsakes the person whom you hurt. Beating yourself up is not apologizing.

  • Apologizing but then immediately asking for an apology back. “I’ll apologize to you when you apologize to me for _________!” This is not giving an apology. It is asking for one.

Here’s a final story to illustrate a good apology:

Nick invited Ruby to a large family party in honor of his grandparents’ 65th anniversary. Nick knew many people at the party and spent much of his time socializing with others, leaving Ruby to fend for herself. She felt awkward and abandoned. When she agreed to attend the party, Ruby imagined something different and was annoyed with Nick for not taking better care of her. Nick understood and followed the recipe for a great apology:

Nick stated what he did wrong. “I’m sorry I spent so much time with others at the party and left you alone a lot of the time.”

Nick showed Ruby he understood how she felt (empathy). “I understand you felt alone and awkward. I also understand you went expecting I would spend more time with you. Did I get that right?”

Nick tried to make amends. “Next time we go to a party, we’ll talk about a plan first. I will follow through with the plan we make. If I can’t spend time with you, like at a business function or whatever, I’ll let you know ahead of time. How does that sound? In the meantime, is there anything I can do or say to let you know how sorry I am or to make it up to you?”

Learning how to give a heartfelt apology is one of the best things you can do for your relationships. It’s all about accountability! When our actions cause hurt and we own the damage done, whether by mistake or on purpose, like in the midst of a reactive moment, it sends a message:

“I care about you more than I care about my ego.”

A heartfelt apology is the repair. Truly caring about the hurt feelings we cause fosters deep love and trust. It’s not always easy. But I think you’ll be amazed by the power of a good apology to heal even the deepest wounds.

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