Podcast 007 - Apologies

Today I'm going to talk about one of the tools you can use to build strong relationships – giving sincere or genuine apologies.

This is an important topic to be aware of because relationships are built on trust and apologies are a big part of repairing trust.

You're going to make lots of mistakes as you go through life – that's how you learn and grow. Knowing how to make others aware you didn't intend them harm or that you feel bad for what you have done is a communication tool that can have a huge influence on the kind of relationships you build. This is true with your kids, your partner, your colleagues, your friends… in fact, all of your relationships.

Part of being able to stand in your power is being able to take responsibility for your actions in life; to recognize when you need to make amends and to have knowledge of how you might do that.

I don't want you to get hung up on this and think – great, now I have to learn a whole new way to apologize.

It's not that difficult, it's just that, like most things, when you give an apology with awareness everything changes and your words can have a much greater impact. So in the end, a genuine apology ends up taking less effort than what you might be doing now, because it has a greater chance of cleansing any wound the situation has created.

What is a genuine apology?

In its simplest form it is telling someone you are truly sorry and that you take full responsibility for your part in whatever happened. Sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

In fact, most of us have learned to justify, blame, excuse, minimize and refuse to take responsibility while not even realizing that's what we are doing.

We have learned to use sorry as a tool to demand forgiveness, "I said I was sorry – it's not my fault you're still upset!"

It's like saying we're sorry is an automatic eraser that fixes what you have done whether you mean it or not. Sorry is also used to manipulate others through guilt and mind games,  "I apologized, but apparently that's not good enough for you! Nooo, you're going to hold this over my head forever, because you're incapable of forgiveness!"

Can you hear the manipulation in that?

It can also be used to over compensate and believe you are responsible for anything that goes wrong. "I'm sorry the weather is crappy for your outdoor party. I should have planned it for last weekend!" Do you hear how this person is taking responsibility for something that doesn't even belong to them?

We've learned to be this way by being forced to say we were sorry when we were young!

Forcing someone to apologize is teaching them:

  • To ignore their own feelings and feel the way you are telling them to feel. Its underlying message is; even though you're angry and hurt right now, I'm telling you that you need to put those feelings aside and be sorry instead!
  • To lie and say they are sorry when they are not. "You say you're sorry right now and mean it!"
  • That apologies are a tool used to manipulate and avoid difficult situations; they might get someone else in trouble; they can be used to create guilt; and they can even be used to create indebtedness or to enslave another!

Forced apologies also deepen the distrust between the people involved because they can feel the emptiness in it. They set you up for a possible power struggle with your kids because how do you force someone to say something and mean it when it's not how they are really feeling? AND it robs them of the opportunity to learn how to make amends for their mistakes.

So whether you're a parent, a teacher, you work in the justice system or even if you're a conflict resolution specialist, it's a good idea to take note of this and refuse to take part in this very broken way of using apologies.

Shifting back to talking about genuine apologies...

Here are some examples of common apologies that are pointing blame, minimizing, and shirking responsibility:

"I'm sorry I yelled at you, but you make me so mad!"

"Sorry I'm late, there was a train."

"I'm sorry I forgot to stop at the store, maybe next time you could send me a text as a reminder." Or even more likely "I'm sorry I forgot to stop at the store, why didn't you remind me?"

"I'm sorry I forgot our anniversary…I've been really busy trying to make enough money to support us you know."

"I'm sorry I called you that, but you started it."

"I'm sorry I snapped, but I'm under a lot of stress lately."

What's interesting is in many cases, people often don't even say the sorry part…and then still think they made an apology. "Shoot, I forgot to stop at the store, why didn't you send me a text?"

The apologies above aren't all bad. For example, "Sorry I'm late, there was a train." Is simply an apology and explanation all in one.  What I want you to see, however, is that if you want to take full responsibility for your actions, you are blaming the train when it did not really make you late. You did not leave enough time for the train and as a result you are late. This sentence could also be finished with – traffic was terrible; there was an accident and they closed off the highway; I had a flat tire. These are all good reasons, who knew you'd need an extra hour for a 15 minute drive?

The difference though, is that a genuine apology takes full responsibility for the fact that you are late. "I'm so sorry I'm late. I thought I had given myself enough time." In a case like this you can still give an explanation afterwards, especially if it's a great story, but that isn't part of the apology itself.

When you give an apology and really mean it, there is no need to explain at that time  just to accept that you messed up.

So with the anniversary apology, "Oh man, I can't believe I forgot our anniversary, I'm so sorry, what can I do to make it up to you?"

What changes, when you give a genuine apology is the potential for how it helps heal the relationship between you and the other person. This is huge, because remember we are talking about these apologies from the perspective of relationship building. When you give a genuine apology your mistake damaged the trust level so your goal is to make amends and give back.

Let me sum this up with 10 Do's and Don'ts when it comes to genuine apologies (you can get a copy of these by clicking the box at the beginning or end of this article). Notice which ones you recognize and where you might have to focus your energy if you decide to give this a try:

10 Tips for Giving a Genuine Apology

Don't BUT in - Avoid the word BUT as it shifts the focus off of you taking responsibility and tends to lead to an excuse, minimization or blame. i.e. "I'm sorry I threw away your important paper, but if you took better care of your things this wouldn't have happened."

Do take full responsibility – Give some thought to what you contributed to the situation and own it. "I'm so sorry I ran over your bike. I really wish it hadn't happened – I know how precious your bike was to you." The temptation here will be to blame them, "Your bike shouldn't have been left out!" We all know the real truth is your job as a driver is to notice what's around you. So take responsibility and leave the teachable moment for later. "We're really lucky there was a bike at that garage sale, now how are we going to make sure this one doesn't get run over?"

Don't become the martyr – Adding in self-deprecating comments to your apologies such as, "I'm a terrible person; or I'm a bad mommy/wife/friend," is a guilt producing tactic that you likely internalized in your upbringing. In this case you are trying to avoid taking responsibility by attacking your own character and unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) trying to get them to come to your defense. This is hard on your self-worth as well as damaging to the relationship and in the end isn't even taking responsibility for your actions.

Do be sincere – if you're not really sorry at the moment, either avoid apologizing or be honest with them. "I realize you think I messed up and owe you an apology. You could be right…I'll have to think about it some more first." Or "I don't feel like I have anything to apologize for. Your homework is your responsibility even when I forget to remind you to do it." Do not apologize if you do not feel sorry for what you have done. You can say, "I'm sorry you feel this way," or "I'm sorry you think I wronged you," but only when you mean it. Avoid giving empty apologies.

Don't promise the impossible. "I'm sorry I was late, it won't happen again – I promise." People can sense when a promise is not possible, and it has a huge negative impact on trust. Even little kids can sense the impracticality when an adult tells them, "Mommy will never, ever leave you, I promise." and know in their subconscious that this is not something their mommy can promise. Instead tell your child something you can promise, "Honey, I plan to always be here for you." or "I plan to live a long time sweetie and as long as I'm alive, I want to be close to you as much as possible."

Do ask how you can make amends – most apologies would do better with an option to make it up to the other person than a request to forgive. Healing happens faster with a salve and asking another person how you can make something up to them (providing you haven't done this already many, many times) can be quite soothing. "I'm so sorry I made you wait at the restaurant. What can I do to make it up to you?"

Don't demand forgiveness – An apology is your way of telling another person you did not intend to hurt. It does not require the other person to accept what you say and does not result in automatic forgiveness. Wounds need time to heal and if you try to rush it, you can hurt it even more. If it's forgiveness you need you could add on, "I hope in time you can forgive me. I will do my best to earn back your trust."

Do be prepared with options – Giving some thought to how you can make amends ahead of time  and then offering them out as suggestions if the other person can't think of what you can do, shows remorse and makes it easier for the other person to accept your apology. Be sure they are good suggestions and don't put them out until your apology has been given. "I'm so sorry I forgot our anniversary. I really want to make it up to you. Do you want to hear some ideas of how I thought I might do that?"

A note of caution: Amends must focus on the needs of the person who feels wronged, so don't offer a massage because you love massages…it must be something meaningful to them.

Don't turn apologies into a weapon – Sometimes it's tempting to think giving a good apology makes us the bigger person so we get frustrated when they don't respond in kind. Maybe they stay angry or maybe they keep bringing it up in a teasing way. As a result you might be tempted to strike out, "Look, I said I was sorry – now drop it!" or "I apologized to you! What more do you want?" or even "Why am I the only one who apologizes? You're just as wrong as I was!"

You don't get to decide how long it takes another person to move on, however you can bring it up at a later time in casual conversation, "You know, I've noticed that when I make a mistake and apologize you like to keep bringing it up after – as a joke or reminder. I find that hurtful, like I'm being punished for something I've already apologized for. Is that your intention?"

Do keep it short – Most genuine apologies can be given in one or two very short sentences: "I'm sorry I was late, next time I'll give myself extra time for trains." "I apologize for forgetting to stop at the store. Can we make it through the night without the groceries?" "I'm sorry I yelled at you and said what I did, I was hurting and struck out at you. Please give me a chance to make it up to you."

So there you go… 10 things to keep in mind when apologizing to someone.

Giving a genuine apology helps to teach how to empathize and feel remorse.

It's unfortunate that we have been so thoroughly trained in how to give insincere apologies.  A person who feels no remorse is a very scary person indeed - so let's make sure we are encouraging this habit and role modelling this very important life skill for our future generations. So if you aren't already, try using genuine apologies and notice how powerful and positive it makes you feel.

With much respect for you and the journey you are on, I wish you a vibrant and powerful day.

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