Another perception around apology is that if we admit our responsibility or our regret (more on the art of this in a second) that somehow we are opening ourselves up to being punished. Or even that we are courting punishment and admonishment simply by admitting that we messed up.
While it may be true that an apology could elicit the receiver of the apology to unleash their projected self-hatred onto us … again, that would not be based in the truth of what apology is:
A deeply humble and empowered expression or acknowledgment of regret and/or misstep, combined with empathy, and a wish to make things right.
The kind of apology I am speaking about is TOTAL. It is not the kind of apology that puts a pin in something, only to have the behavior being apologized for be repeated ad infinitum—having the apology serve as a way to “buy time.” The kind of apology I am describing is one in which true responsibility is being taken. This requires a few qualities:
The ability to reflect.
The ability to take ownership.
The willingness to be kind toward our own humanity … aka not beat ourselves up.
The ability to feel feelings such as empathy and regret.
The ability to feel along with the person across from us to whom we are apologizing.
There are four elements or steps to apology:
1. State what it is we are apologetic for, specifically, in a very information-based way, using the word “I.” It simply isn’t effective to say, “I am sorry you are hurt by this.” That can come across as invalidating and also distancing from the responsibility. If I interrupted you, I would not say, “I’m sorry you felt interrupted.” Rather, I would say: “I am sorry I interrupted you while you were speaking.” Full ownership.
This focus is on naming “what actually happened”—informationally, while owning that it was indeed your behavior and action, and the effects of that that you are apologizing for, not the person’s interpretation of the event.
The key with this part of the apology is NOT to defend through explanation. An example of defending through explanation might be: “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I was actually picking up a phone call” or “The plane flew overhead and I didn’t hear you.” ANY version of explanation is felt as a defense and comes across as a resistance to making a full apology. There will be plenty of time later, when the apology is fully expressed (often this is a mere few seconds later FYI), to clarify any miscommunications or misunderstandings. In my experience, once someone feels your genuine apology for any hurt an action of yours may have created (however misinterpreted the action may have been!) they are quick to assume the best of you; and they will likely open up, of their own accord, to your experience and your perspective. Imposing your perspective too early stops the positive impact of apology in its tracks, and keeps both people in the defended position.
2. Express regret and empathy: “I regret stepping on your words. I can imagine that might not have felt so great.” An expression of empathy here is profoundly impactful.
3. Express what you will do differently next time (or, rather poignantly, “If I had it to do all over again, what I would do differently is…”). Example: “I will listen intently and with full presence if you’ll allow the conversation to continue.” Don’t assume the person will want to pick up from where you left off. But if they’re willing, you are invited to start afresh in the moment, a lovely opportunity to take them up on. If not, likely there will be another opportunity in the future for you to interact with them differently, and apply this (newfound?) intention.
This above step is to let them know what you would do differently if you had it to do all over again, and importantly–that you are not rushing them to forgive you—this agenda to receive forgiveness, once again, can take the kind wind out of the apology’s sails. There is no reason to ask for forgiveness. I would recommend staying in the generosity zone. As asking for forgiveness is seeking absolution…something the person can willingly offer (or not) in their own time. It is so important to keep it about the other person when apologizing, while staying firmly empowered in your own skin.
4. Sometimes staying in the seat of apology for a length of time is key too. If you are too quick to jump into “Are we done?” or “Do you forgive me?,” it doesn’t offer the receiver of the apology the breathing space to take the apology in, fully. If your apology is genuine, you may need to stay still … and sit in the generosity of your empathic mea culpa. You cannot rush this process.
If it is a particularly deep hurt, or deeply triggered wound for them, this could be their cleaning up and healing of something that has plagued them their whole life—not only in your relationship, but in others as well. This could well take more than 30 seconds to take in! Stay with them.
~Once you have expressed your apology, ownership, empathy, and regret, leave room for all of that really LAND. And let them take the lead as to when you begin speaking again. Any number of responses are ideally welcomed: They might stay in stony silence. They might cry. They might process some more anger around it—and I recommend leaving copious amounts of room for this. (I am not talking about receiving any kind of acting-out of anger on you, however. Anger expressed in words is different than their taking out their anger ON you.)
In all, let the feelings be processed. And hold space, offer deep presence. And don’t waver from your generosity and genuine care.
Within an apology, here is something to keep in the front of your mind that will support your sustained empowerment and presence, if that is indeed a challenge:
You are apologizing for the regrettable action; you are NOT apologizing for EXISTING, or for BEING a failure. The latter would be untrue and tends toward shame attacks that spiral and spin you downward into self-absorption— a another way to lessen the kind impact of the apology.
Having been on both ends of this kind of fully present and open-hearted apology, I can’t tell you which end feels better. They both feel healing and connective, in the end. While certainly there is hurt and anger or regret and discomfort to traverse through, the payoff holds the greatest rewards: re-establishing a bond, growth, healing, warmth, empowerment, raised consciousness and awareness … and a true sense of partnership and intimacy.