Learning to Apologize
When was the last time you had a situation arise at home or at the office that ended in a less than desirable way? How did you handle it? Did you think about all the things that the other person did that was wrong? Did you contemplate what was your part in this interaction? Did you decide to forget about the situation and just move on?
It’s interesting that in most cultures, we say I am sorry or apologize for many little things, whether it is for interrupting someone mid-sentence or stepping into their path in a hallway. For example, in Japan, we say we are sorry if we are about to eat first or leave the room. But when it comes to apologizing for something important with people we care about or those we rely upon at work, we seem to choke on the words. And if we manage to give an apology, it is often immediately followed by an explanation of why we did it. “I’m sorry, but….” The end effect is that we are really good at apologizing for things that are trivial, but for the people that really matter, our attempt at making an apology doesn’t really have an impact. In the end, we risk losing a piece of the goodwill in our relationships that can have a lasting effect in the long run.
What Gets in the Way?
First thought, sometimes it really doesn’t matter if you feel that the other person was 90% at fault and you were 10% at fault. Anyway, it is rare in any conflict that someone is 100% at fault....
... Interactions with people that you care about is not a contest. It is not about winning or losing, and seeing it this way is what makes an apology difficult because inside us, it feels like apologizing means that we have lost a contest. Sometimes it is simply painful for us to admit that we were wrong. Instead of taking a black or white view, it may be helpful to view this from a different perspective. An alternative perspective could be – what could I have done differently to make a difference? Instead of thinking about winning or losing / right or wrong, it may be more productive to think about getting the a good outcome out of an interaction with someone that you value.
Another reason why apologizing is difficult is that in some ways it feels like we are give away power or control. Actually, if you think about it, a person who has humility and can express regret for things that they have done is usually seen with greater respect, strength and integrity. Take a look at some of the people that you admire, either successful business leaders or people that you truly respect in your personal life. It takes a lot of courage to take accountability for one’s own actions and to sincerely express regret if their actions may have had an adverse effect on another.
Besides taking ownership for our own actions and a desire to be a better person, there are some other good reasons to take a look at a mirror to find opportunities to improve yourself here. For one, not apologizing creates ill will both in the workplace and in our personal relationships. If you think about a time when someone hurt you and they did not apologize, imagine that there people around you that you care about that feel this bitterness towards you. It also sends a strong message to those around you that protecting yourself is more important than how you feel about them.
There is a Japanese proverb that states
あたまかくしてしりかくさず (atama kakushite shiri kakusazu).
The literal translation is “hide the head but not the buttocks” which means if you make like an ostrich and hide your head in the sand, others will still see your faults. To pretend like you didn’t do something to warrant making an apology doesn’t change the perception of others about you when you choose not to make an apology.
An unexpected side effect of apologizing is that it helps you and the other person let go of the past in order to move on. The past is done, nothing can change the things that have already transpired. What an apology does is it says I am sorry if my actions hurt you, I recognize this, and I will do something differently in the future. The people around you in turn find it difficult to harbor bad feelings towards you, as you have made an admission of your vulnerability and that you value them. It often strengthens relationships as most people find a stronger desire to try to improve future interactions with you as well.
Some Tips on How to Apologize
As soon as possible. It is important to apologize as soon as possible after something has occurred. Waiting doesn’t make it any better, for you or for the other person. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can start on the road of moving forward.
For which situations? Whether you are fully at fault or not, whether you intended to do it or not, whether you think it will be discovered or not, stepping up to the plate and apologizing for your own actions will send the message that you have integrity, you have self awareness, that you value the other person and your interactions with them, and that you take responsibility for your actions whether or not someone else will hold you accountable for them. In a situation where you are standing up for your beliefs, don’t apologize for your beliefs or for having a different point of view. However, apologize for an interaction on how you may have shared your beliefs and the impact that it had on the other person. Did you understand the other person’s point, how did it differ from your own, did you look to find ways to get a workable solution despite these differences or did you dig your heels in or get into the attack mode? Usually, it is not that you hold different beliefs that creates the conflict, rather, it is how it communicated, and your respect for the other person during the interaction.
Keep to the apology. Say I am sorry without adding explanations, reasons why you might be justified, etc. Don’t complicate or qualify the situation. Take complete responsibility for what you have done and what you hope to be able to do differently in the future. All of these additions simply tell the other person that this is not really an apology, but rather an excuse.
Listen and hear the other person. It is important to actively listen to the other person after you have made an apology. Often times we are too busy listening to our own internal chatter to actually hear what the other person is saying. There may be strong feelings, emotions, or impacts to the person that they need to communicate to you in order to let go of the situation. Active listening means letting the other person speak, hearing not only their words but hearing what is underneath them. It means not interrupting them or saying, “I know”. It means letting them know verbally that you heard them and understand the impact of your actions on them. It is not a time to argue, to find more blame. It is about coming to a common point of understanding of the situation so that both parties can let go in order to move forward.
Understanding and sincerity. Let the other person know that you understand why you were wrong and the impact of your actions to the other person, whether you intended it or not. An apology just to say I’m sorry without sharing this understanding may give the other person the sense that you are apologizing because you should be apologizing, which leaves a less than sincere feeling. An insincere apology is perhaps worse than no apology at all.
The future is an opportunity. An apology means that you are sorry for something that you have done and that you will try not to repeat the same in the future. If one apologizes, then repeats the same actions again, your words will mean very little. By letting the other person know what you hope to do differently and then start acting in congruence with this, they in turn will likely also contribute to how they can improve the situation.
Don’t dwell on it. Once you have apologized and had a conversation to close the situation, do not keep apologizing. It is better to focus on the actions and demonstrate your commitment than to dwell on apologies. It is also not healthy for the work or personal relationship if there is a feeling that one always needs to repeat an apology as it signals an imbalance in the relationship or a lack of trust between the parties.
The Opportunity to Improve
The reflection and potential ideas presented here are not rocket science. At the same time, working on adapting a new behavior or dropping one that does not serve you well is easier said than done. Working with a coach can help you gain more clarity on the specific behaviors you would like to change and put together your own strategies to consistently demonstrate this behavior until it becomes a normal habit for you. By raising your self-awareness, understanding some of the beliefs that are driving these behaviors, and by removing some of the obstacles that keep you from getting there, working together with a coach may enable you to get there faster than you might otherwise on your own. If you are interested in learning more about how coaching can help you, please click on the Contact Us link on the right margin for a free no obligation trial session.