Strong Apologies

Never Apologize.  It shows weakness. Have you heard that one?  That is so 1950’s leadership.  Yet here we are in 2014 and we still see this played out in our leaders, in our government, and even in our personal relationships.  It is high time we shift this paradigm.

imageThe flaw in the suggestion is twofold – first, that apologizing shows weakness, and second, that that’s a problem.  Let’s  address the second part first.  Is weakness a problem?  Does it steal from leadership?  The idea that leadership is earned and maintained through acts of strength and strength alone is an antiquated notion.  Today, leaders know that strength is about connecting in a human to human relationship, not about demonstrating super human feats that serve to separate and alienate.  Leadership is about authenticity and humanity.  It is about leveling up by inspiring those we lead to level up with us.  When we are showing up as the best version of ourselves, and doing so on an equal footing with those we lead, the best version of those around us shows up as well.  This is as true for executives in boardrooms as it is for political leaders and their constituents as it is for parents and their children.  When we remove the limitations of hierarchies, we reveal an inspired, empowered team of authentic and extraordinary humans who are able to take risks and make mistakes, without ever losing the trust, commitment and power that exists in being in community with each other.

Apologizing most certainly does NOT show weakness.  The moment at which one recognizes an apology is warranted is the recognition that an error has been made in violation of one’s intention.  The emotions that come up are regret, disappointment, possibly shame.  This is followed by a decision – hide or ignore the error or own up to it with an apology.  The decision to take responsibility stems from courage.  It is a brave act to create a space of vulnerability that summons or repairs trust and demonstrates that the relationship is held at higher value than ego.  By holding the value of the relationship strong and cementing that with trust, we create a safe space for risks to be taken, without which there is but limited possibility for reward.  This is most certainly not weakness; this is a most powerful act of strength.

To be clear, apologizing is not to be confused with obsequiousness – living apologetically as though one IS sorry as opposed to feeling sorry.  When you are living authentically and in your significance, it shines through as confident strength.  You need not apologize for who you are, how you feel, or, for the feelings of others.  Here are some common apologizing behaviors that undermine the power of a truly effective apology:

  • Apologizing for an outcome, such as someone’s feelings…  This does not take responsibility for your actions, it places guilt on someone else for their reaction, whether it was an active result (“I’m sorry I got caught”) or an emotional reaction (“I’m sorry you feel that way.”)
  • Saying I’m sorry – when you’re really not…  The language exists, but the body and emotion are not supporting the language.  We often hear this as acquiescence or whining or indifference.  We see this as a closed, rigid body.  A strong apology has a full coherence in the body, emotion and language.
  • Saying everything EXCEPT I’m sorry… Even if the body and emotion are there, the full coherence also includes the language.  When someone is avoiding the words “I’m sorry” we interpret the missing language as justification or defensiveness or fear.

So how do we apologize effectively to benefit our relationships?

Give yourself permission to fully immerse yourself in your emotional state.  You may be feeling regret, shame, disappointment, sadness.  Allow yourself to embody that emotion.

Linguistically, an effective apology has five parts:

  1. State the actions that you now regret:  I said I would meet you for lunch but I canceled at the last minute.
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings/ reaction:  As a result of my actions, you feel disappointed and forgotten, is that right?  It may help to invite the other person to share his or her feelings.
  3. Apologize and clarify your higher intention: I am so sorry.  I truly care about you and want you to feel important and cared for in our relationship. Avoid justifying or creating excuses.  Stay true to your higher intention.
  4. What steps will you take now based on what you learned?  In the future, I will plan to make my commitments or renegotiate in advance.
  5. Ask for forgiveness:  What can I do to make this up to you? Will you forgive me?  Forgiveness is a promise that you will no longer hold that act against the person.

For further consideration:

  • What do you notice about your patterns of apologizing?
  • Are there people in your life to whom you find difficulty apologizing?
  • Are there people from whom you’d like to receive an apology?
  • What practices will you commit to doing to serve your relationships?



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