I’ve written about apology and forgiveness before, specifically around how to make a good apology. Sometimes, however, we learn just as well by seeing something done wrong. Especially if it’s done terribly terribly wrong. And in this media frenzied age we do not lack for examples of horrible apologies from celebrities, politicians, public figures and community leaders.
A couple of weeks ago we had a snowstorm and schools were closed for a few days. Snow can be really disruptive here in central Virginia. Snow days can be really disruptive to parents whose schedules were somewhat dependent upon their kids being in school – people like me. And it’s not just because my kids are now in our house and demanding attention. It’s also because I WANT to offer them that attention, but I also want to get my work done and I feel split in two directions. I suspect that’s why last month led an editor of a local family-focused magazine to tweet an exasperated comment about snow days resulting in offending teachers on such a grand scale that the editor then tweeted an apology which was not terribly well received and eventually she closed her twitter account. The original tweet ended with #sorrynotsorry. You’re going to see that as #1 in how not to apologize:
1 – “Sorry, not sorry.” If you’re not sorry, be not sorry. If you are sorry, be sorry. But don’t be both, because you are most definitely not sorry that you’re not sorry. I don’t know what you are, but it isn’t sorry. It reads a little prideful but yet I suspect that most statements that accompany “sorry, not sorry” like the above is really an expression of exasperation, frustration, possibly even hurt. These are experiences for which we want compassion and connection. So when you put flippant sarcasm out there, you’re really just attracting more of the same.
2 – “Sorry you feel _<insert your feeling here>_ “ This is another way of skirting your misdoing and turning the tables to make it about the other person. In my experience I have never seen a relationship grow as a result of telling someone his or her emotion is wrong. I have seen the apology quickly deteriorate into a discourse on the validity of the apology.
3 – “I’m sorry IF I did something to offend you….” Plausibly denying your actions is also not a winning apology. You took some action. Someone became offended. Them’s the facts. Own what you did (but you don’t have to own the reactions). This gets a little messy if you disagree on the facts. Did you say what you were accused of saying? Someone definitely heard it. Some apology is an art. If you can’t admit to what you’re accused of, try listening with curiosity.
4 – I’m sorry but…. Justifying your actions – Whether you’re on the defense because you disagree with the accusation, or you agree with the accusation but you think you had good reasons, jumping into justifying suggests that you aren’t really sorry at all. Moreover, it sounds a lot like given the same situation you’d do it all over again. So now we’re back to #1 – you don’t really want to apologize. Set aside your defense to really hear the result and THEN decide if you still feel good about your actions. If you’ve listened intently and you still feel the need to express your side of the story, check to see if the other person is ready to listen. There’s not much use in offering justification to someone who isn’t able to hear it.
5 – The best defense is a good offense – Is it? This can quickly lead to an escalation of accusations. Whose offense is worse? Who is more hurt? Who’s the victim here? What do these questions have to do with the topic at hand? Exactly. Unless you’re looking to try your hand at global thermonuclear war, I don’t recommend going on the offense.
6 – Let’s just drop it… It’ll blow over… Let it go… And a myriad of tactics aimed at avoiding it. Actually, this approach works really well… a lot of things do blow over especially in terms of public opinion. But in deeply meaningful relationships, just “dropping it” is really more like putting it on pause which may be a good idea if the people involved are not really committed to hearing eachother. The failure here isn’t in pushing the pause, it’s really in not returning to it because invariably, it will come back but it’ll come back carrying a helping of resentment and instantiate a practice of poor apologies. If you’ve ever had a groundhog day conversation about the same thing happening again and again, it could be because we never got to completion on the apology AND the forgiveness.
Perhaps an infographic will help summarize this…
Need more practice? I recommend googling “worst public apologies of all time” and critiquing the results. But don’t stop there. Notice how you’re experiencing a pool apology. Notice if you make some of the same mistakes. Then decide… what kind of apologizer do you want to be? Do you want to be a Senator Wiener? Or do you want to be a Jonah Hill?