We all screw up from time to time. Getting better at knowing what we did and being able to articulate that with empathy for the person that was affected, is key to thriving and trust filled relationships. Apologizing well is an art. An art that many have not taken the time to master. Perhaps its because an effective apology takes the skill of honest and humble introspection. Apologizing also takes courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable. To land an apology that makes a difference, you also have to willing to be "wrong", accept the effects of whatever blunder you committed (hurt feelings, loss of opportunity, or whatever else the effect was) and change your behavior in the future. Put all of this together and is it any wonder most people do half apologies, or none at all, before running away and hiding?
Perhaps we should cover how NOT to apologize first. Besides not apologizing at all, here are three of the biggest mistakes people make:
- saying I'm sorry, BUT. This is actually just a sneaky way to avoid admitting you were wrong by somehow justifying your action. It could be pointing the blame to outside forces or pointing out what you were thinking that made you take that action. Explaining your motivation can come much later to increase understanding, but not in the same sentence.
- Upon your friend/lover etc pointing out that something you did or said affected them negatively, immediately redirecting the conversation to something THEY did in the past, instead of looking at yourself honestly.
- Committing the same blunder over and over again. There are only so many times you can say you are sorry, but keep screwing up in the same way. Over time it becomes like the little boy who cried wolf. Your apology loses its power and becomes meaningless.
Ok, so how then to apologize well? Here are some pointers:
- Take some time to sit with yourself and ask honestly; What was my part in this? What can I own up to? Just taking the time to do this alone, can help you see your part and create a softness in the space between you and the other person. This softness is where healing begins.
- Asking if now is a good time to talk. We can get so caught up in the NEED to get our apology off our chest, that we can miss that the person we want to apologize to may not be in the space for it. It shows sensitivity, maturity and respect to honor the other persons head space and time.
- Keep it simple at first. Simply saying; "I want to apologize to you." and then pausing, so that you can both get comfortable in a space of vulnerability. Breathe. You will be less likely to get defensive, or jump back into trying to justify, if you take your time and take many pauses to recenter if necessary.
- Saying "I'm sorry THAT...." When you apologize don't just say, "I'm sorry I hurt you." This is better than nothing, but it can also be a cop out. Saying something like "I'm sorry I made you feel bad." can easily be just a way to get it over with without actually understanding what happened or what part you played in it. If you can not only say you are sorry, but detail exactly what you did, it will go a long way in letting the other person know that you see yourself clearly. There is nothing more reassuring than knowing the person you are with can really see themselves and is willing to grow.
- After "I'm sorry that" follow up with specific actions that will help you not make the blunder again. And then make sure you actually DO them ;)
- Finally, ask questions. "How do you feel now?" "Is there any other action I can take to help us clear this and grow forward?" Letting your friend know you care about how they feel and are available to listen can do wonders in helping them feel loved, and cared for.
Ok, lets make a specific example. Keeping it light, lets say that you always show up late when you meet with a certain person.
You: OMG.. sorry I'm late but traffic was so bad (or my dog made me late, or I forgot my wallet... etc etc)!
Friend: no worries. (meanwhile they are making mental notes that you can't be counted on and you won't change because there is always an excuse. Plus, maybe you just don't really respect or care about them that much so you just went down a notch on their "close friend" list.)
You: Wow, I am really seeing that I always show up late to hang out with you. I am so sorry. From now on I am going to set my alarm an hour earlier so that doesn't happen again. You are important to me and it's not cool that I have allowed myself to be late over and over again.
Friend: No worries! <hugs you> (meanwhile, is touched and inspired that you care enough about them to change your behavior, and are humble and wise enough to tell one on yourself without making excuses or blaming anything outside yourself for your own behavior. You just went up a few notches on their friends list.)
Which one feels better? Which one would you like to receive? Of course its harder the bigger the blunder. It takes an almost physical effort sometimes to not react by justifying or blaming in the moment. I screw that up all the time. But if you practice self awareness (via meditation or something else), you will at the very least catch it sooner. The more you get in the habit of just owning up to things (as long as they are truly yours to own up to!), the easier it gets and the more you and your relationships will flourish.
One last caveat. Some people really suck at accepting an apology. Some people will take your vulnerable space and use it to make you feel worse or just plain milk the moment. Mostly unconscious I think, but if it isn't... maybe you will want to reconsider that friendship. Ideally, in a growth centered relationship, your friend see and honor the courage it took to own up and even better, maybe come back with something THEY could have done better too (depending on the situation). This is a key element to equal, growth centered and loving relationships. That being said. We all screw everything up over and over again (hellllo humanity!), so there is no getting this perfect. Just another something beautiful to strive for ;)
As always, we are all in this together!