How and Why to Be So Sorry

The Importance of Apology

Yesterday my children had a semi-disastrous first day of school.  It all boiled down to a bad tooth.  Let me explain:  my husband broke a tooth some time ago, which then got infected, which had to be treated for infection before it could be removed. 

While I was working, he had it removed, took a pain killer and slept for five hours.  He slept through the time he was to pick up the boys. 

The school started calling us frantically.  I tried to reach my husband without success, and feared something terrible had happened at the dentists.   I’d been told people can die during dental extractions if there is infection.  

In my panic I forgot an irregular appointment I had offered a client who was unable to meet at our normally scheduled time. 

As a result of this series of mistakes our children were embarrassed and alarmed, my client felt neglected and the school office staff were inconvenienced. 

Apologizing is a skill that every single person needs to have, because we are not perfect and make mistakes which hurt feelings and cause stress and inconvenience to others

A heart-felt apology rebuilds trust and opens up space for both parties to be imperfect and still worthy.  Seen in this light, mistakes can be almost sacred for their healing potential. 

In my work–particularly with couples—I’ve noticed how many of us lack the capacity to issue a skillful apology.  Why?   Many of us come from families where addictions or emotional problems prevented even the acknowledgment of, much less accountability-taking around mistakes.  Without family role modeling, apologies can feel unnatural, even risky.

Here are my top suggestions for effective apologies:

  1. Know that you don’t have to be perfect
  2. Make eye contact
  3. Use short sentences:   I am sorry for_____ because I know it made you feel _____; is a perfect template.  (We often negate our apology by going into why what we did was perfectly rational, how our partner needs to be more understanding, how they did something similar last week, etc…)
  4. If you are apologizing for a repeated behavior, cut it out!  Apologizing for the same thing over and over again is like drinking cold, day-old coffee.   It just won’t do.  Eventually the other person won’t trust your integrity or commitment to change. 

A bonus suggestion:  A small token gift is a gracious and effective way to further make amends in addition to the above steps. 

To make amends for leaving our children at school the boys were taken out for chocolate shakes and dollar store toys.  Then the next day I sent my husband to school with a bouquet of flowers for the office staff.  My client will get her next session free of charge to make up for her inconvenience.

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