It’s hard to admit a mistake. But we all have the opportunity, don’t we? Regularly! Here are some things to consider if you find it hard to say, “I’m sorry” but know you need to and want to give a G o o d A p o l o g y.
“I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me?” He said it with disdain. His wife rolled her eyes as if to say, “Yeah, you really sound sorry.” Let’s just say it wasn’t a productive collaborative session-until our divorce coach intervened and helped them move to an effective apology exchange. (A divorce coach is good for that kind of thing!) There’s good research behind the art of apology and we can all learn to do it better. Here are some things to think about the next time you mess it up.
Why is it so hard to apologize?
It feels vulnerable to say, “I messed that up and I’m sorry.” We feel exposed and guilty. It’s a state that some people\
avoid at all costs. Why?
- Pride or Ego. Some people were taught that apologizing is a sign of weakness. To be wrong feels shameful not human.
- Fear of punishment and rejection. This is the kid who
still has cookie crumbs on his mouth saying, “it wasn’t me.” She won’t apologize in hopes of avoiding punishment. It’s the same reason physicians are scared to acknowledge a mistake for fear of being sued. It’s a protective move.
- Lack of empathy or self-awareness. Some people are really challenged to understand what the other may be feeling. These people don’t understand the impact of their actions so they don’t see the need for an apology.
- Poor communication skills. Saying, “I’m sorry” is just the first step. But more is needed for a Good Apology.
The next time you mess up and are struggling to own it, see if one of the above reasons is at work. We can’t fix what we don’t own.
What does a Good Apology require?
Try this memory device to remember the following elements: Take A SEC and do it right.
- A – Acknowledge the wrong. Clear, direct, unvarnished. “I threw out the [thing] without checking with you and that was wrong.” “What I just said was hurtful and more intense than it should have been and I was wrong for saying it.” Unvarnished means without excuse and without justifying the action.
- S – Say it. It seems so obvious but can be passed right on by. Say the words, “I am sorry.” If those words can barely pass your lips, practice on your own. Say it over and over and over until it doesn’t sound and feel so foreign. You’ll get the hang of it and find it’s not so hard when you actually need to speak it to someone else.
- E – Empathy. Let the other know that you actually get how he felt, that you get the impact of your action or inaction on him. Why? Because if the other person feels that you truly understand, he’s more likely to truly forgive and be able to move on. If instead he believes you are just going through the emotions and don’t really get the impact of your actions or words, he-and you- remain stuck (like the couple in the collaborative session above.) Instead, listen when he explains the pain and offer, “I can see that what I did upset you and hurt you” or “That must have been so hard for you. I understand that now.”
- C – Commit to change and make it right if possible. If you routinely throw up a painful circumstance in an argument (a childhood trauma or a past affair, for example) or if the thing thrown out can be retrieved, commit to make it right. “I know I brought up the event again and I’m going to not do that anymore.” “I’m going to go to Goodwill and see if they still have the thing.”
Practice and Put Together Your Good Apology
Give it A SEC and think about what you want to say to hit all the marks. It might sound something like this: “What I said was hurtful and I was wrong to say it. I am seeing how much that hurt you and I am genuinely sorry. I want to do better and I am telling you that I won’t bring that up again. It’s not helpful and causes you pain and I want us to be able to move forward in a more positive way.”
“I’m sorry” issued with acknowledging the wrong, empathy and a commitment to change or make it right, will diffuse anger and allow you both to move forward. In a session, I can sometimes picture a balloon releasing the helium keeping it afloat. It’s smaller and takes up less space and energy in the room. And then people are able to engage in productive settlement talks. The couple our collaborative session? The divorce coach, well, she coached! She helped elicit an understanding of how hurtful the action was and helped the spouse who caused the pain shape an effective apology. Balloon hissed its release and they moved on. You can too if you get this right.
Wishing you wisdom,