Enough with the Anti-Apologies!

16 02 2014

sorry-apologyWe all do it. Some of us more than others. Some of us have become experts at the art of the apology, while others have a well-crafted anti-apology ready any time they feel attacked. Which boat are you in? Do you take responsibility for your actions, even if you don’t think you did anything wrong? Are you a staunch defender that you were right, and therefore no apology is needed?

Apologies are always tricky, because they involve being vulnerable. The very question of whether or not to apologize implies that somebody’s feelings got hurt, regardless of where the actual blame may lie. Too often, people get sucked immediately into a defensive state, where they are too fearful of blame to truly offer a genuine, “I’m sorry.” If apologizing means admitting you were wrong, when you were right, why would you do it?

stealing cupcakes 2There are plenty of times where just those two little words are enough. When you innocently took the last dark chocolate cupcake with cream cheese frosting at the office party, only to realize that the woman down the hall was waiting behind you to get one, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” as a type of condolence for her loss. It’s generally more well received than saying, “Haha! I got the last one!”

Let’s say you are walking down the street, coffee in one hand, reaching into your coat for your phone with the other hand, and you accidentally bump into that crotchety old man who was just minding his own business. You might also offer a simple, “I’m sorry,” to reflect that you did something that may have offended him, whether you meant to or not. You might then discover he’s the next big investor in your company, or your future father-in-law. Thankfully, you never intended to do something to hurt others, but you took responsibility immediately for your actions and the potential consequences. You nipped it in the bud, and no further response was needed. Had you not apologized, however, you would have likely entered into a confrontation. While the curmudgeon glares at you and mumbles something about ‘people these days,’ you may be unwittingly developing a new your arch nemesis. Despite how small, apologies are a nice little tool for maintaining a civil society.

gorilla-scratching_eileen and dogsWhen it comes to bigger apologies, they get more complicated. Often, if you feel blamed, guilty, or attacked, your ability to apologize can be severely stunted. Maybe you know you should do it, you want to do it, but when you open your mouth, it feels like a 400 pound gorilla just sat on your chest. Apologizing is a skill, and you can get better at this. Start by thinking about what role apologies should play in your life.

Apologies are not meant for you

This is not a confessional booth. It’s not about relieving your burden. This is about the other person. A true apology is a selfless act, and not about giving. You will come across as insincere when your apology is about wanting forgiveness. Make an apology that requires nothing from the one who is receiving it. Keep it simple: “I understand that I really hurt you and I want you to know that I am truly sorry.” Even if you think the other person was ‘overreacting’ or ‘overly sensitive,’ if you care about them, you might still owe them an apology. It is not for you to judge how someone else feels. Also know that the simple act of you giving an apology does not warrant their acceptance.arguing couple

Live in the NOW

What is the issue at hand? If you are stammering to find the words, it’s likely because you are caught up in thinking, “did I really do anything wrong?” There are three parts to this event: first, the offense, second, the apology, third, the aftermath. You can not change the past, and can not affect the way what you did was interpreted by the offended. All you have control over now is the apology, and the aftermath. Focus all of your efforts on recognizing and respecting the other person’s feelings, and stop focusing on the actual offense. There will be time later to revisit and learn from this, but right now you need to offer your apologies.

Don’t Drag Your Feet

When it comes to emotions, it doesn’t take long for things to fester and blow up. Our hearts are like one big 6th grade science experiment. Once the volcano starts bubbling, it’s only a matter of time before it comes frothing back out at you. You cannot simply throw a grenade in the volcano and walk away as if nothing happened. If you do, this becomes your second offense. Now the person will be mad at you not only for the original instance, but also how you handled it. Do not wait to take responsibility for hurt feelings.

Let it hurt

Apologies are painful. You may feel wrought, anguished, torn, and embarrassed. You should feel uncomfortable. Get over it. This is you pausing to reflect on the fact that something that just happened hurt another human being, and now you have to admit that publicly.This is a difficult and highly reflective observation. A meaningful apology is a sign of integrity, not weakness, and overcoming the temporary discomfort is part of your strength. Besides, ripping off the bandaid is far less painful than dealing with a festering wound weeks later.

Take Responsibilityapology-form

I don’t care if you were trying to do something amazing, and it totally backfired and caused anguish. So you wanted to surprise your significant other with a birthday party, and didn’t realize you invited their sworn enemy? Your intentions are not the point. The point is that it happened, it was ugly, and you played a role. Do not try to minimize it or trivialize it. It was obviously a much bigger deal than you understood. Accept your responsibility, and do not try to rationalize the reason for your behavior, unless specifically asked by the offended. By rehashing the events to try to prove your good intentions, you may only make it worse.

Stop the Anti-Apologies

Saying things like, “mistakes were made,” or I’m sorry you think that,” or “it wasn’t that big of a deal,” is not an apology. This is the classic, passive-aggressive retort, used by those of us who are unwilling to accept responsibility. Remember, this is no longer about your actions, this is about feelings. If you cannot understand what you did wrong, shift your focus to the other person. Regardless of the ‘why,’ think about the ‘how.’ How did you make them feel? How can you make them feel better? How can you prevent from doing this again?

 apology

Avoid the Blame Game- Leave the Defense on the Basketball Court

It’s easy, and natural, to want to ignore the possibility that we have done something wrong. Rarely is there an argument where someone is 100% right and the other is 0%. Rather, most apologies are in grey areas where you’re both kind of right and kind of wrong. Don’t place blame on the other person just to defend your own honor. You can not possibly understand the myriad of personal history that has brought the other person to this moment in their lives. Do not accuse them of overreacting, as this simple places more blame. Instead of blurting, “I thought you wanted me to be honest with you!” or “You always speak like that to me,” try this, “I didn’t realize that what I said was so hurtful, but I can see now how it must have stung. I truly am sorry that I caused you any pain.”

Bracing for Goodbye

You had a big argument, you both said hurtful things. Maybe this was just the latest in a long string of disagreements. So what if the blame clearly goes both ways? They have not apologized yet for their actions, so why should you? Even if this is an un-salvageable relationship with an old friend who has grown in a different direction, you should still do the right thing, and take responsibility for your part. Maybe in this case a formal apology letter would be more appropriate than trying to get a face-to-face meeting. Your apology may not be returned, or even accepted. You need to prepare for this possibility, and accept what you cannot change. Think about this in terms of the bigger picture. No matter who started it, or who did what, your intentions should never include hurting others. Make it right, even if it’s the last thing you ever say to this person. You can sleep better at night knowing that you found the integrity to be genuine and respectful. Don’t wait it out.

Dig Deeper

An apology can stop with the current offense, but sometimes you know you can do better. If you made someone angry with a casual comment about their messy home, you might recognize that this is a sensitive subject for them. If it’s someone you are close with, try asking later about why this is a sore subject for them. You never know what childhood tauntings and insecurities other people may be hearing in their heads. Commit to being a better person, and avoid making the same mistake again. Even though you didn’t think it was offensive, respect their feelings, and be more considerate with your words in the future. Try to express the ways in which you will act differently in the future. For example: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Now that I know that speaking in that tone of voice sounded condescending to you. That wasn’t my intention, and I will work to change the way I approach you.”

Invite Feedback

After the dust has settled, remember that only the person on the other end of that conversation can really know how they felt. If you truly want to improve yourself, and avoid more misunderstandings in the future, you need to get their feedback on better approaches. Not everyone will be able to have a calm discussion about this, but if you succeeded in offering a sincere, heartfelt apology, chances are that they accepted it and are willing to help you move forward and grow. You have to be prepared, however, for harsh reality. You may not realize that the way you say things is taken very differently than you intend. Try asking, “I really want to improve the way that I communicate, and my recent apology made me realize that you might be able to help me to improve the way I approach some things. Will you help me by telling me a better way to say this?”

apologiesNext time you find yourself in a situation where feelings get hurt, you should be better prepared to be vulnerable, heartfelt, and sincere. A good apologizer is a good relationship builder. Everyone must conquer this skill, or risk burning bridges. Regardless of how perfect you think you are, unless your goal in life is to hurt other people, you do have something to apologize for, even if you think you did nothing wrong.

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