“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word

steve_goreIn New Zealand and, I’m guessing, the rest of the world, we are taught to apologise when we have done something wrong.  Sincere apology can be a great healer for yourself and repairer of relationships.  However, sometimes finding sincerity can be difficult, especially if you feel like you haven’t done anything wrong, or that the person you are expected to apologise to doesn’t deserve it or should apologise to you first.

There is a way through this that can also make our apologies more effective, enduring and powerful.

If two kids are fighting and a parent says, “apologise for hitting your sister/brother!” the words being asked for are, “I’m sorry I hit you.”  The focus of that style of apology is on the person giving the apology.  He or she might as well be saying the words to the wall and they would be as meaningful to the other.  That style of apology is about my actions and restoring myself as a worthy human being.

What about the other person?  Where are they in the apology?   In the words, “I’m sorry I hit you.”, the apology would be almost the same, if the ‘you’ wasn’t there.  The message the other might be receiving is, “I’m sorry for my actions but what happened to you is of no interest to me”.  When we ask our children to apologise in this way we are inadvertently asking them to think only about themselves, not the effect of their actions on others, and I think we can agree that teaching our children empathy and cause and effect is important.

A more effective way is to focus the apology on the other person, rather than yourself and your words or actions.  When this is the focus of apology, you don’t even have to express regret for your actions.  “I’m really sorry you were hurt during that fight we just had.   I wish that fight didn’t happen”, is an apology and statement of regret that is focused on the other person, and doesn’t even mention the action.  This apology is about appreciating and connecting with the other person’s experience of what happened and expressing regret that they had an unpleasant experience.  It’s about restoring them, not you.

This doesn’t give you a “get out of jail free” card.  While the focus of the apology might be on them, not you , it is helpful to take responsibility for your action.  Taking responsibility is different from taking blame.  Blame is something generally pointed at the other and can be broad or totalising (totalising is when we give someone an unescapable label that defines them  “You’ll never amount to anything”).  When you take responsibility for something you are simply stating what you did or said.  It is helpful to avoid justifying yourself, unless you are asked to.  If you said, “I said some things and called you some hurtful names that I regret”, you are taking responsibility, but if you justify that by adding, “But you started it when you called me…” it looks to the other like you are blaming them for your actions, which is unfair and, frankly, a bit pathetic.  You are basically saying you have no control over yourself and everything that you do is someone else’s fault…don’t be that person!

If the other person asked why you did something you are expressing regret for, you can use this as an opportunity to invite them into responsibility, while avoiding blaming them… “when I heard myself called X, a rush of anger came over me and I lashed out. ”  This is a bit different to saying, “when YOU called me X…”

I worked with a client recently on just this issue.  Something had happened where doing her job had caused a huge inconvenience for another worker.  My client felt she couldn’t apologise for what she had done with any sincerity as it was her job but when we discussed apologising for the inconvenience to her colleague she saw the possibilities that this may create.  She did just that and their relationship was quickly restored.  All the other person was looking for was acknowledgement that they had been hurt and that they mattered to the person who caused the hurt.

When couples fight apology is important to restore their relationship.  In a fight both are often left with the sense of being attacked and hurt and both are waiting for the other to heal that hurt.  An apology that only acknowledges the actions and not the hurt doesn’t do the job fully.  It doesn’t express caring for the other.  It can leave the recipient with the lingering notion that their partner will do the same thing again because they don’t care that they have hurt them.

I hope this has offered some helpful ideas.  Effective apology is difficult.  It is subtle, nuanced and requires careful languaging.  It is definitely something that you should delivered when tempers are cooled and you have time to think carefully about what  happened, how you were hurt, what you regret, what you want to take responsibility for and, therefore, what you want to say.

Ka kite ano