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Why is a sincere apology so important for our relationships?
Kristen Anderson, Waterloo, ON
I’m sorry. Those little words are so much a part of our everyday conversations.Why do so many of us have such a hard time saying these words? Maybe it is because most of us just don’t know how to. Not effectively anyway.
It is a running joke about how often Canadians say these words. Someone bumps into me at the grocery store and I say, “I’m sorry”. If you answer the phone (back in the day when people had shared phones, anyway) and the caller asks for a person who is not available we say, “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. Can I take a message?”. “I’m sorry, we’re closed”. “I’m sorry you are upset”. The list goes on and on. Do we really mean that we are sorry?
There are many messages wrapped up in this word. It turns out; the word “sorry” has multiple meanings. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sorry as
1: feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence, such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
2: mournful, sad, such as “I’m sorry for your loss.”
3: inspiring sorrow, pity, scorn, or ridicule, such as “That is a sorry excuse for your behaviour.”
I have thought a lot about what these words mean and the best interpretation I can come up with is that we really mean, “I regret”. We say “I’m sorry” when we believe we have injured or hurt someone in some way—we mean that we wish we had not done it or we feel sad we have hurt the person or that we are disappointed in ourselves for our actions.
It is an act of taking responsibility for our actions and attempting to repair or mend the injury we have caused. And it can be so very very hard to do!
In parenting, these words are frequently used. How many times have we said, “You need to say you’re sorry!” Or “You have to apologize to your brother RIGHT NOW!” Often it is us directing our children to apologize for something they have done or said.
We want to raise children who are sensitive to others and who take responsibility for their actions; teaching them to apologize is a very important part of these skills. However, we also know that forced or demanded apologies feel insincere to the giver as well as to the receiver. How do we teach our children to genuinely take responsibility for their actions and apologize when they have hurt someone?
What about ourselves? How often do we apologize to our kids for our own behaviour or actions?
Conflict, disagreement and hurt feelings are an unavoidable and necessary aspect of every human relationship. This means that the ability to apologize is an important relationship skill.
In fact, conflict and a resulting apology can be a time to actually strengthen relationships. Think of a time when you had an argument with a friend or partner or child. Think of the uncomfortable emotions it created—distress, anger, fear, sadness. What did it feel like to “make up?” To say, “I’m sorry” and to hear “I’m sorry, too”.
An apology can change those uncomfortable feelings in a heartbeat! What a relief to feel that the relationship was only momentarily hurt, not broken forever.
Part of the problem is that most of us don’t really know how to apologize effectively. While the words “I’m sorry” are important, the intent of the apology is even more so. If there is a “key” to the proper apology, it is in the delivery—how we say it.
It is acknowledgement that the behaviour or action caused injury in some way to the other individual. An apology that is meaningful for both the person giving the apology and the person getting the apology includes the following parts:
Intention: the apology is given for a reason and remains focused on that reason. The first example, here, acknowledges the behaviour and the hurt or injury it caused. It involves empathy and understanding. The excuses or explanation for the reason does not need to be part of the apology.
While the reason in the second example may well be true, the “excuse” minimizes the apology and ignores the distress that was caused.
Genuine commitment: the apology is given with a genuine commitment to change the behaviour that brought on the apology or to develop a plan to repair the injury. It means doing our very best to follow through with our commitment. For example:
“I’m sorry I lied to you about where we were going. I can see that you are angry with me right now. I am going to tell you the truth from now on so that you know you can trust me.”
“I’m sorry I lied to you about where we were going. I was just trying to avoid an argument, which obviously did not work.”
Again, while the reason may be true, the excuse minimizes the apology and actually implies that the other person was responsible for your behaviour. There is no commitment to handling things differently in the future.
Unconditional: a sincere apology is given without conditions. This means without excuses or explanations. The word BUT is not part of a sincere apology. The following examples demonstrate the change that this single word can make:
“I can see that I hurt your feelings when I yelled at you just now. I am sorry I yelled and I am sorry I hurt your feelings. I am going to work very hard at controlling my feelings in a better way so that I do not yell so much anymore. I know it frightens you.”
“I can see that I hurt your feelings when I yelled at you just now. I am sorry I yelled and I am sorry I hurt your feelings. I am going to work very hard on controlling my feelings in a better way so that I do not yell so much BUT I would not have to do this if you would just listen to me the first time I ask you to do something!”
There are very different feelings triggered by each apology! The first is a great example of a sincere apology: the parent sticks to the purpose or intention of the apology, acknowledges how the child feels and makes a concrete plan to change their behaviour. No excuses are offered—the parent takes full responsibility for their actions. The child feels heard, understood and loved. The parent feels honest, competent and loved. The relationship has been repaired.
The second example, however, changes everything.
While the parent sticks to the intention of the apology, acknowledges the effect on the child and commits to change, the addition of the “but” and the reason that comes after it, changes everything. Now the child likely feels resentful, blamed and responsible for the parent’s behaviour. And that the parent’s reaction or outburst was somehow “justified”. When I have had one of these moments with one of my kids, I know I walk away still feeling angry or frustrated—and unhappy with myself.
We can still hold our children accountable for their behaviours. The key is to separate the apology from the feedback we want to give or the limit we want to set. It is ok to address the behaviour, just not within the apology. Otherwise, the message is really, “I was justified to yell because you caused it”. That does not feel good for any of us.
When we apologize for our own behaviour, freely and without condition and then later, start the conversation about “listening when I ask you the first time”, our children are much more likely to hear our feedback. They are more cooperative and more willing to be part of solving the problem. In addition, by offering a meaningful and genuine apology to our children for our own behaviour, we teach them how to do this themselves.
A sincere apology is good for all of us. Both sides of the apology benefit. Here are just a few ways:
1. Helps us to re-connect, heal a “relationship injury”
2. Builds confidence and trust
3. Relieves feelings of distress for both
4. Increases empathy, on both sides
5. Models courage and taking responsibility for our actions
6. Allows you both to move forward
7. Brings peace to the situation
8. Reduces conflict and disagreement
9. Gets you both into the “smart”, thinking part of your brain
10. Problem-solving can happen once the connection is restored
There is still one more step to a sincere apology: a gesture of re-connection.
Offer a hug, a handshake, a smile. Perhaps check in with how the other person is feeling. Is there something more the person wants to say? It might be hard to hear and there might not be time in this very moment to have that conversation, but you can make a commitment to talking more when you both have time.
Download our “How to Apologize” poster and pin it up where everyone in the family can see it. You will be amazed at the difference sincere apology can make in your relationship—ALL of your relationships!
Kristen Anderson is the Digital Resources and Social Media Lead for Parenting Now. She is also the parent of three active teenagers. You can connect with Kristen on our FaceBook page or find her at our online chat. Check our Let’s Talk Parenting page to see her schedule. Ask her about apologies–or any other parenting concern. She would love to chat!