How do You Apologize and Why Should You?
Introduction by Bob Aronson
This blog has addressed many issues over the years, but we’ve never approached the issue of how our behavior when ill sometimes results in hurt feelings, the loss of friends and even the dissolution of marriages because so few of us know how to say, “I’m sorry,” in an effective and meaningful manner.
Anyone who has suffered a serious, life-threatening illness has at one time or another lost their temper, or become overly emotional and said and did things that are out of character. Unfortunately we rarely know just how deeply our words and actions can hurt others and worse yet, when and if we apologize we do so ineffectively. “I’m sorry,” are two words that are extremely difficult for most people to say and when we do use them it is often too late and without sincerity.
I’m a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a twelve step program and two of the steps are devoted to apologizing. In AA it’s called “Making Amends” or apologizing to those you have hurt or harmed in some manner. Specifically step eight admonishes members to “make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” And –Step Nine says, “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Having been part of that program for 33 years I should have more than a passing acquaintance with apologizing, but I don’t. I’m not very good at it and I don’t like doing it because like most people I don’t like having to admit that I’ve made mistakes….who does?
The bottom line is that making amends or apologizing is good for one’s mental health and I was made aware of that recently by Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch a family member with a Doctorate in Communication. A brilliant woman, Priscilla has for years served as a healthy living advisor to the Diffie family and her advice is always spot on. Recently I asked her to pen a guest blog for Bob’s Newheart and she responded with this essay on apologizing. It’s a subject to which I’ve given almost no thought and am grateful that she brought it to our attention.
I’m hoping we can talk Dr. Diffie-Couch into being a more regular contributor to our efforts. Thanks Priscilla.
How do You Apologize and Why Should You?
By Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch ED.D.
One of the most fundamental communication skills needed to maintain trusting and close relationships is found in the art of apologizing. The most common mistake we make is to respond to someone who expresses hurt feelings by saying, “Oh, you misunderstood. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” That only serves to insult that person’s intelligence. Few people would say, “I meant to hurt your feelings or offend you.”
Effective Apology—Mending Fences by John Kador is an excellent resource for understanding the skills involved in apologies that actually repair hurt feelings. His five “R’s” explain why an effective apology is far more than simply sincere and why extracted apologies leave us feeling so unsatisfied:
By RECOGNITION, he means acknowledging that feelings are not debatable or deniable. You must treat that person’s declaration of being hurt as valid and true. Denying the truth of your offense will do nothing toward healing. Of course, confining your attacks to the issues–not the persons who raised them–will greatly reduce your need to make apologies.
By RESPONSIBILITY, he means acknowledging your real role in this hurt. You must own the words that you said and accept that they caused hurt. Responsibility means saying, “I’m sorry. I see how that was offensive to you.” You must acknowledge your guilt and convey a willingness to do something about it. Saying “You misunderstood” not only adds insult to injury, it suggests you think the responsibility for fixing the hurt belongs with the person who is offended.
By REMORSE, he means verbally admitting that you made a mistake in the way you conveyed a message and you feel bad about causing the hurt. Arguing with someone who has expressed that your words were hurtful exposes that you do not feel contrite; your real goal is to prove you were right. Excuses are equally offensive. They only widen the wounds.
By RESTITUTION, he means the willingness to invest whatever time is required to ensure that the hurt party sees that you are sincere, feels better and knows that you care. Saying “That’s just the way I am” is tantamount to saying, “You are the problem, not me. You are too sensitive when I express my strong opinions. You are the one who should change, not me.” You are not alone in having strong opinions. It’s how and when you choose to express them that most affects your relationship with others.
When deeds and words collide, words seldom win. Saying, “I love you” is meaningless unless you are willing to take specific actions that truly reflect that love. Words have the power to inflict wounds that only deeds can heal. When you hurt others, the act of making a full apology is the deed required. It is critical in repairing a relationship damaged by hurt. Expressions of love are poor imposters of apologies.
By REPETITION, he means promising to avoid repeating the offense. Apologies that fall short are seldom seen as “wholehearted.” Vows to change help insure acceptance of your apology and increase the hurt party’s desire to take on responsibilities and benefits that come with forgiveness. But that is another story.
Effective apologies restore and improve relationships and pave the pathway to personal growth. People who have good relationships live longer and healthier lives.
This summary focuses on only part of what Kador deals with regarding effective apologies. Maybe you have questions. I did.
QUESTION: Do all my apologies have to include all five dimensions? The short answer is no. Passing events in our lives like bumping into someone or creating a disturbing noise call for little more than “I’m sorry.” The focus in this book, however, is repairing and improving relationships. Achieving that goal demands consideration of each dimension in framing your apology.
QUESTION: Isn’t it true that some people are overly sensitive and require an unusual number of apologies? True, but you have little to gain by excusing yourself from giving an apology based on what you see as the recipient’s personality shortcomings. Life demands dealing with all kinds of personalities. You cannot change others. You can control only your own behaviors. People with the greatest number of satisfying relationships are those who recognize the value of understanding and adaptation.
QUESTION: I am not a great communicator. Can’t I just send the injured person flowers or some kind of gift? No gift can convey the five dimensions that characterize a wholehearted apology. Gifts can easily be seen as taking the easy way out of situations that are full of needs and complexities.
QUESTION: But isn’t it possible that whatever I did or whatever I said does not warrant an apology? That is possible. Your first objective with someone who claims to be offended is to be sure that you have a full understanding of the basis for that claim. Use the words “Help me understand exactly what I said or did….” When no specific examples or explanations can be provided, then an extracted apology will do nothing to promote trust. Instead, say something like this: “I value our relationship, but giving you an empty insincere apology for something so vague will not bring us closer.”
QUESTION: Are there specifics about what I should or should not include in my apology? Begin with “I.” Use active voice. Example: “I’m sorry I hurt you,” not “I’m sorry you were hurt.” Do not include “if’s” or “buts.” Don’t joke. Don’t assume. Ask how someone feels. Use the person’s name. Don’t ramble. Don’t argue. Listen. Really listen. Then apologize.
Learn to apologize effectively. It’ll do your heart good.
An award winning high school speech and English teacher, Priscilla Diffie-Couch went on to get her ED.D. from Oklahoma State University, where she taught speech followed by two years with the faculty of communication at the University of Tulsa. In her consulting business later in Dallas, she designed and conducted seminars in organizational and group communication.
An avid tennis player, she has spent the last twenty years researching and reporting on health for family and friends. She has two children, four grandchildren and lives with her husband Mickey in The Woodlands, Texas.
Bob Aronson has worked as a broadcast journalist, Minnesota Governor’s Communications Director and for 25 years led his own company as an international communication consultant specializing in health care.
In 2007 he had a heart transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He is the Bob of Bob’s Newheart and the author of most of the nearly 250 posts on this site. He is also the founder of Facebook’s nearly 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) support group.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Posted on August 18, 2014, in Mental health and tagged apologies, Apologize, do the right thing, excuses, I'm sorry, Mental Health, Priscilla Diffie-Couch, Recognition, remorse, repetition, Responsibility, restitution. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.