Crash! My head jerked around at the sound of breaking glass. In horror, I saw my son pull the table cloth off the table, and with it my cherished heirloom candy dish from my great-grandmother. A gasp escaped my lips and my son looked, wide-eyed into my face. A look of terror twisted his beautiful features and tears sprang to his eyes. “Mommy, oh no! Mommy! I’m so sorry. You can fix it, right?” he stammered as I knelt beside him, gently picking the broken fragments off the floor and piling them into the garbage can. I did my best to keep my anger at bay as he climbed into my lap and smothered my face with kisses. He knew what he had just done was wrong, but there was no way his four-year-old brain could possibly fathom the depth of sadness and loss I felt at that moment as I scooped the pieces of this treasure off the floor. After I was done, I held him in my arms as he continued to frantically apologize. I must admit, it was hard for me to forgive my son for what he had done. What he did was something that could not be fixed or replaced. But, he was quick to identify that he had done something wrong and offer a heart-felt apology. For the sake of our relationship, I knew I needed to work through my feelings of loss and learn to forgive him.
Whether it is a child, a best friend, or your sweetheart, there will come a time when you will do something that will hurt them. It might be something small like eating the last piece of chocolate cake that they had been eyeing all day in the fridge or something really big that cut them to their core. We will all have cause to apologize. However, not all apologies are the same. The only thing worse than no apology at all is an apology that is a non-apology; one that places the blame for the action back on the person who was hurt. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m sorry that I yelled, but you make me so crazy!” That is a non-apology. It excuses your poor behavior and puts the blame on the person you hurt. It takes courage to admit you were wrong and that you hurt someone you care about. It takes even more courage to stand in front of them and express your apology to their face and wait patiently for their reaction. If you find yourself expressing too many non-apologies, trying using the Why-Because formula. Explain what went wrong and then acknowledge your fault. Then follow it up with AND . . . This is the part where you propose a solution. That is the real sweet spot of an apology. This is where you show the other person you how you plan to stop that same mistake from ever happening again.
This is what it looks like. Jessica got so busy talking with her best friend Mary at lunch that she missed her boyfriend’s backyard party he threw for his new boss. Jessica knew this hurt him deeply. Instead of excusing her poor choice, she owned it outright. After the party, she sat next to Mark and said, “Mark, I am so very sorry that I missed your party. I know that you were very anxious about putting on a fun get together for your boss and coworkers and you needed me here to help you. It was selfish of me not to pay closer attention to the time. In the future, I will set alarms on my phone to make sure I’m home one time. In fact, I will make sure to schedule my lunches with Mary at a different time so there is no conflict with your important plans.” After Jessica apologizes, she needs to give Mark time to process the apology. She cannot expect him to forgive her immediately. He may need some time to let the sting of disappointment and hurt die down. What matters most is that Jessica takes full responsibility for her mistake and that she pays close attention to her words and tone while she expresses that to Mark. If she had said, “Mark, I’m sorry I missed your party, but you know how I am around Mary. Besides, I really wasn’t that interested in meeting your boss anyway. Just get over it.” That would hurt the relationship more than if she hadn’t apologized at all.
The last rule of an effective apology is to stop repeating the behavior. If you apologize to someone and then continue the behavior that hurt them, you cannot expect them to keep forgiving you. One of the best apologies is changed behavior.
Apologizing will never be easy. It requires humility, vulnerability, integrity. But it is absolutely vital for the health of all relationships. If you find that you are not apologizing on a somewhat routine basis, you may want to check and see how in-tune you are with your relationships. We are all human and as such we will be routinely stepping on someone’s toes. Apologizing isn’t something you do only when you feel you did something wrong. It is also something you do when someone feels wounded by your words or actions. Apologies are excellent tools for showing someone that you value them and the relationship more than you value your ego or being right.