Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Art of the Apology

We live in a world of parsed language and half-meaning. Even more, we live in a world of denial and hard-heartedness. It's a paradoxical thing. Because people are so merciless when someone screws up, people resist apologizing for fear of being condemned worse, rather than just being judged for "allegedly" doing something wrong. So people don't apologize for offenses they cause, and when they do muster the courage to apologize they sprinkle it with qualifiers--either because they don't really think they were wrong and want to put the problem behind them (the apology is a manipulative tool) or because they are afraid the apology will result in making the relationship worse or they will be viewed as worse.

People have lost the ability to gracefully apologize. Whether it's Bill Clinton or Larry Craig, just to name two, the apologies are spat out angrily, devoid of meaning and actually impugn the honor of those offended. How dare you be offended? The latest example was Reporter Rebecca Aguilar who attack a senior citizen who had killed two different men who were breaking into his home and business. He was clearly shaken and she verbally assaulted the man in the parking lot while he bought a new gun saying, "Are you a trigger happy kind of person? Is that what you wanted to do, shoot to kill?" Nice. People watching the news report were outraged and called the station. A woman who exchanged email correspondence with Ms. Aguilar received this apology:

First of all, Mr. Walton is the one who told me where he was going to buy his shotgun. Though he didn't want his face on camera, after he showed us the new weapon.... he did want to share his side of the story. He didn't want folks to think he was some kind of criminal. That's why he shared his tears, his remorse, and his side of the story. I also reminded viewers that Mr. Walton did not break any laws, because he was in the right. I'm sorry you took my story the wrong way. You didn't see my story yesterday...when I pointed out that the man Mr. Walton killed had a criminal record involving theft.
We'll just take that apology as Exhibit "A" on how not to apologize. I've written about apologizing before and can't find the post and don't want to slog through the archives. It doesn't hurt to repeat though. There is actually a Wiki How To about apologizing. Let's go with that. I'm going to skip Step 1 & 2 and focus on Step 3:
Begin the apology by naming the offense and the feelings it may have caused. Be specific about the incident so that they know exactly what you're apologizing for. Make it a point to avoid using the word "but". ("I am sorry, but..." means "I am not sorry.") Validate their feelings or discomfort by acknowledging your transgression's (potential) effects:

  • "Boss, I'm sorry I'm late again, I know my shift started 10 minutes ago. I hope this doesn't complicate your day."
  • "Dear, I'm sorry I forgot your birthday - there's no excuse. I hope you don't feel neglected, please let me set this right."

Step 1 and 2 mention that this is best done in person, privately. The second best would be on the phone. If the person won't see or talk to you, it is better to do it in writing in private.

The next step is to Make Amends. If someone stole $5 and then didn't return the money, but apologized, would you feel better?
Make amends. Think about what caused you to make the offense. Is it because you're a little too laid back about being on time, or remembering important dates? Is it because you tend to react instantly to certain comments, without pausing to consider an alternative point of view? Is it because you are unhappy with your life, and you unknowingly take it out on others? Find the underlying problem, describe it to the person (as an explanation, not an excuse), and tell them what you intend to do to rectify that problem so that you never repeat this mistake again:

  • "I snapped at you because I've been so stressed out with work lately, and it's selfish of me to take it out on you. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to cut down my hours to X per week. I really think it'll help me unwind, and help us spend more quality time together."
  • "I've been distant and cold because I get paranoid that you're going to walk out on me because I don't have a job. But that's a terrible thing to do. Look, here's a list of things I'm going to do to find a job ASAP..."
It is a measure of how seriously a person takes their offense when they take the time to analyze the underlying pathology that caused the wrong to begin with. A good apology works only with a good dose of self-awareness. It is even more offensive when a person apologizes but isn't specific, doesn't acknowledge the harm done and further, doesn't change the mindset that caused the offense to happen again.

An artful apology brings a relationship back to equilibrium. That is, the offender cedes power in order that the relationship is restored. In fact, he gives the other person the power. That is what is so difficult for the person apologizing. His fate, in a sense, is in the forgiver's hands. That discomfort is only fair considering the offense to begin with. Wiki says:
Ask if they will give you a chance to make up for what you did wrong. Insist on proving to them that you have learned from your mistake, and that you will take action to change and grow as a result, if they will let you. Make a clear request for forgiveness and wait for their answer. This gives the injured party the well deserved "power" in determining the outcome of the situation.
This is why apologizing so rarely happens. It is distressing to disarm oneself and hand ammunition to a person who is, ostensibly, upset with you. And that person might not accept the apology. What then?
Be patient. If an apology is not accepted, thank them for hearing you out and leave the door open for if they wish to reconcile later. (E.g. "I understand you're still upset about it, but thanks for giving me the chance to apologize. If you ever change your mind, please give me a call.") If you are lucky enough for your apology to be accepted, avoid the temptation to throw in a few excuses at the end. Instead, have a transition planned out beforehand for what you can do to solidify the clean slate (e.g. "Let's go get some coffee and catch up. It'll be my treat. I miss knowing what you're up to.").
And the final step is most important. As an aside, it is rare that our boorish behavior is aberrant. Usually, it is established behavior, a character flaw that requires fixing. I remember one of my past egregious wrongs and it has driven me crazy that I can't find the girl that I wronged (she was a fellow chiropractic student), but what the experience revealed to me was a deeper problem I had. Since the ability to make it right has thus far eluded me, my efforts have been put into not doing it again and changing the part of me that did it to begin with. And I pray that the effects of my offense have been forgotten.

But I know how good a sincere apology feels. When in High School, an acquaintance who had been mean to me through Middle School came up with her friends and apologized to me for being mean. She didn't have to do that. Her kindness stuck with me. We can all be shits. We can all screw up. We can use that power to heal, too.

Back to the final step:
Stick to your word. This is the most important step. A true apology entails a resolution, and you have to carry out your promise in order for the apology to be sincere and complete. Otherwise, your apologies will lose their meaning, and trust may disappear beyond the point of no return. Follow through.
It is difficult to hold a grudge against someone who repeatedly makes it right. Who has changed. A person can hold that grudge, but then, it's on them.

Mind you, some wrongs are so horrible (murder, abuse, assault) that the person might forgive, but they don't want to be around the offender. This might just be good sense.

Some tips from Wiki that are worth noting:
  • Use relaxed and humble body language. Keeping your arms crossed or pointing fingers will put the other person on the defensive.
  • One apology will often cause another, either from you for something else you realized you are sorry for, or from the other person because they realize the conflict was mutual. Be prepared to forgive.
  • A proper apology is always about the injured party. Keep your apology focused on the actual wrong done, and the recipient.
  • Dont keep asking if he or she is mad at you. Constant reminding of this will only make the person be more angered and ill tempered towards you.

We have all been wronged. And we have all wronged. It takes pride-gulping gumption to give a sincere apology. It is an Art.

Happy apologizing! Now, I'm going to attempt to research and deal with a thornier subject: How to accept an apology.


Anonymous said...

You wrote on Apology on Oct. 12, 2005 on your old site.

Melissa Clouthier said...

As disturbing as it is to have been blogging that long, it's even more disturbing that someone has been reading that long. But I'm glad people do!

Anonymous said...

Not disturbing at all. There are other blogs that have been up and running longer than yours that are read faithfully.

Anonymous said...

We live in a world of parsed language and half-meaning.

"It all depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."

Because people are so merciless when someone screws up, people resist apologizing for fear of being condemned worse...

I learned the hard way that if you ever admit to anything -- definiton ANYTHING -- you find you have volunteered and accepted the blame for EVERYTHING since Eve at the apple. Blame thrown onto you by The Righteous Who Can Do No Wrong.

Never admit to ANYTHING.

Anonymous said...

People have lost the ability to gracefully apologize.

Replaced by the ability to DEMAND total groveling, kiss-my-ass-no-kiss-my-ass-again-and-again-and-again Magical Mommy Kiss apologies from anybody and everybody who might possibly have inconvenienced our Pwecious Widdle Self-Esteem.

Exquisite, oh-so-Delicious Sensitivity to our own Self, with total indifference towards anyone and everyone else.

sandy said...

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