Last year around the holidays, I began working with a couple divorcing after more than 30 years of marriage. “Mary” was determined to explain to me that she had read a text on “Bill’s” phone that she obviously wasn’t meant to see. I let her vent for awhile about Bill’s infidelity, looking for any sign of regret or contrition on Bill’s face. When Mary paused, Bill looked directly at me and said, “I already told her I was sorry.” He seemed to be anxious to change the subject. Was his apology enough for Mary?
We all apologize numerous times each day. There’s what I call the “oops-sorry” apology, when you accidentally bump into someone’s heels with your shopping cart. Also easily recognizable is the “insincere” apology, which often occurs when you insist that your fighting kids tell each other they’re sorry. I can still hear my nieces sounding just like the ding-dong of a doorbell with their sarcastic, “sorry;” neither having eye contact nor sincerity with the other.
As a Mediator (and a human), I deal with relationships. I know from experience that apologies aren’t important to everybody, but they are very important to me, both personally and professionally.
The best apology, in my opinion, is the one which starts with, “I’m sorry for . . .” and then goes into detail. Ideally, that apology ends with a promise that it will never happen again. If the apology is sincere, the person doing the apologizing is clearly taking responsibility for his/her actions and communicating the understanding of why the apology was necessary.
Here’s an example from my own life: After having spent hours cooking a romantic dinner for a special guest, he arrived two hours (yes, two hours) late without a phone call. His apology wasn’t excuse-driven, it was heartfelt. To paraphrase, he said, “I’m so sorry that I was inexcusably late. I was rude and selfish to you, and seeing how much effort you put into this dinner makes me feel even worse about my behavior. If there is a next time, I promise that if I’m going to be more than 10 minutes late, I’ll let you know.” That was a good apology. He was accountable for his mistake and truly contrite about the effect it had on me.
The worst apology, in my opinion, is what I like to call “the passive-aggressive non-apology.”
By way of example, also from my own life (different guy), I was told: “I’m sorry I slammed the door, but you really pissed me off.” Beware of this one. The passive-aggressive non-apology comes from a person who actually believes this is an apology. He wasn’t really sorry that he slammed the door because it wasn’t his fault.
Some people just don’t apologize at all. They consider it a display of weakness instead of an appeal for forgiveness. When I encounter the non-apologizers in a mediation, I try to help them say the words without actually saying they’re sorry. This can be a slippery slope, but what sometimes works is when I ask this question: “If you had it to do all over again, would you have made a different choice?”
Words are powerful, and choosing them appropriately isn’t always easy, especially when delivering the often-difficult apology. The next time you mess up (and you will — we all do), try to give yourself an extra moment to phrase your apology in the best way possible.
In the context of looking back on 2016, do you think someone might owe you an apology? Or maybe you are holding out on delivering yourself one because it wasn’t your fault?
Please share your thoughts by commenting on this blog. And if I’ve offended either of the two men I mentioned in my examples, I apologize.