By Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch
A while back, family member Priscilla Diffie-Couch who holds a doctorate in communication, penned a blog for Bob’s Newheart titled, “How do You Apologize and Why Should You?” (https://bobsnewheart.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/how-do-you-apologize-and-why-should-you/) It became very popular but in its popularity generated a multitude of questions. Dr. Diffie-Couch, who is never comfortable with loose ends provided some very thoughtful and effective answers. Please feel free to share them and the original blog with anyone you choose.
In forwarding her response draft she said, “I am pleased that so many of you read my blog on effective apologies. Several of your comments and questions have prompted some points of clarity.”
If you find yourself repeating the same apology for the same offense to the same people, you must question whether you have ever included all of the five dimensions of an effective apology:
At the very minimum, you are evidently repeating the offensive behavior that caused the original distress. People grow tired of hearing repeated promises when a change in your behavior is what they really expect from you.
No. You run two risks with this approach. (1) You will add to the anger and hurt of those you have offended, the longer you put off saying the two words they want to hear: “I’m sorry.” (2) You will waste your lengthy explanation because the listener or reader will be so focused on hearing or seeing those two magic words that they will miss much of the rest of your message.
Start by saying you are sorry. Determine what the hurt party expects. Make sure you come to a mutual understanding of the exact nature of the offense. Work to include the five dimensions. Is it something you said or didn’t say? Did or didn’t do? Then end by saying exactly what you intend to do to avoid repeating the offense.
Apologize without delay. Undue delay adds to the offended person’s distress and allows for compounding the problem and even encourages imagined transgressions that never occurred. Allow yourself enough time to pull your thoughts together and assess the nature of your offensive words or behavior. It never hurts to take great pains in how you plan to phrase an apology.
Is it better to apologize in person or in writing? Can I do so on the phone?
You would think apologies should be done in person. But that is not always the best or most practical approach.
You can express a simple “I’m sorry” immediately through any medium. But you need to let the party know you plan to follow up with specifics. Even when it is practical to apologize in person, a carefully-thought-out written apology can smooth the way for a more comfortable and satisfying personal interaction. Put yourself in the reader’s place. Reread your apology many times with a careful eye as to the “tone” of the words you have chosen.
As a person who wears top-of-the-line hearing aids, I can tell you that apologizing on the phone is fraught with potential perils.
Absolutely not. In fact, the offended party will be looking for a direct reference to the exact hurtful deed or word and will wonder if you really understand why you are giving an apology if you fail to recognize the specific nature of your offense. It is pointless to promise to make obscure and general behavior changes when it is a particular offense that caused the hurt. Until you address the matters of contention fully, the offended person is unlikely to view your apology as satisfying or sincere.
Unfortunately, it is all too common for people to “gunny sack” a lot of old grievances and then to dump them all at once in a given confrontation. Ask yourself if you recognize your guilt in each separate issue the offended party raises. If you do, you are obligated to make amends for each issue as a separate matter. In healthy relationships, people avoid “gunny sacking.” Every disagreement should be dealt with independently without delay.
Shouldn’t I just keep my apology very simple if that is my style?
That depends on your goal. If you seek only satisfy your own personal standards with your apology, you can choose what to include and hope for the best. However, if your goal is to repair and restore a damaged relationship, then you should heed the approach that works most successfully in a larger world.
Wouldn’t it be better in some cases just to skip the apology, let things go, and move on with your life?
That is what many people do who are left wondering why they have so much trouble maintaining close, trusting relationships. Those same people excuse offending behavior by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” If you are one, ask yourself, “When did the death of my growth occur”? At age three? Thirty-three? Sixty-three?
Valued relationships must be nurtured. That demands taking responsibility for any role you may play in eroding a relationship. As human beings, we will find ourselves guilty more than once of causing temporary distress in other people’s lives. Learning how to repair the damage that distress can cause necessarily involves utilizing effective apologies. That is a part of actively becoming a better person. That kind of growth is possible and desirable as long as we live.
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 of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s over 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me 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.