Some folks are entrenched non-apologizers, and there’s no changing that. They are too defensive, too covered in shame, and can’t or won’t see themselves objectively. They will never own up.
Often, however, the challenge of apology and reconciliation is a dance that takes place between at least two people. This means that if you aren’t getting the apology you need and deserve, you may unwittingly be contributing to the problem.
Remember this: People won’t apologize if they’re feeling overly-accused or pushed to assume more than their fair share of the blame. As one man put it, “When my wife criticizes me, I don’t want to apologize because I feel like I’m putting my head on the chopping block. If I apologize, I’m agreeing with her that I’m the whole problem which isn’t true.”
Even a slight exaggeration of the facts can kick up the other person’s defensiveness. If your partner came home late from work six times last month, and you accuse him of coming home late eight times, he’ll likely focus on correcting the facts, rather than taking in your legitimate complaint.
Sometimes over-doing a criticism is hard to spot because it’s subtle. We may be holding the other person responsible not only for their behavior, but also for our reaction to it. My friend Bob told me this story:
My home office has been a mess lately and Jill, who shares the space, is a much more organized person than I am. After glancing at the stacks of papers everywhere on my desk and floor, she said to me: “When I walk into this room, I feel like our household is totally falling apart.” Totally falling apart! Our household? I’m her hardworking faithful partner of 14 years and because my half of the office is a mess she feels like everything is crumbling around her? And yet when I said, “That’s a pretty extreme statement” she simply responded, “Well, it’s how I feel.”
Bob picked up his papers from the floor, but didn’t muster up the maturity to apologize. As he put it, “The accusation was simply too much.” Despite Jill’s attempt to couch it in “I-language,” it was a broad condemnation in both content and tone.
From Jill’s perspective, she was sharing her feelings. But Bob felt like he was being held responsible not only for his messiness, but also for her feeling like their household was falling apart. This made it more difficult for him to apologize for his inconsiderate behavior. He cleaned up his mess, but felt more like the victim than the inconsiderate one.
You can’t make another person drop the defensiveness and fess up. Nor are you responsible for the wrongdoer’s failure to apologize when she or he should. You can, however, avoid adding to that individual’s defensiveness, so that you have the best chance of exceeding his or her threshold of deafness and being heard.
Even if the apology we seek concerns a relatively small matter, the wrongdoer will get more defensive if you overstate your case or come on too strong.
Want an apology? Stick to the facts. And hold the other person responsible for their behavior--not for your response to it.