What’s the Hardest Part of Making an Apology?
When you have to focus only on the other person's experience.
Posted Sep 22, 2020
The first part of making an apology is the hardest, because it requires you to change your approach to troubling moments between you and someone else. Usually that means making a deliberate decision to be open to learning about the effect you’ve had on someone else; it means giving up the more common position of defending yourself. Even though we refer to “saying ‘I’m sorry,’” the first part of an effective apology doesn’t involve saying anything. It involves listening.
After a misstep, the automatic thing some of us do is say, “I’m sorry.” We hope that’s the end of it. Sometimes we deliver those “magic words” as if we’re fulfilling a requirement, but even when it’s a sincere attempt to repair a relationship, it isn’t enough. In my apology model, there are four steps, all necessary and none sufficient in itself.
Getting started is hard. In Step 1, you have to learn how the other person has been hurt. This is not a time to share your reasons or explanations, or your benign intentions or countercomplaints. It’s definitely not about what kind of person you are (for example, someone nice, considerate, kind), nor about alleviating your guilt, shame, or any other feelings you, the would-be apologizer, have.
This step is not about you at all. It’s only about understanding the other person’s experience of hurt.
Many of us find it more comfortable to take action than to be receptive and listen. Moreover, just thinking about listening to someone tell us about our hurtful impact on them can make us feel defensive and uncomfortable. The temptation to skip this step is understandable, but it’s the base on which a good apology is built.
Step 1 (asking and listening) requires you to quiet yourself, to put your own frustrations, old injuries, and preconceived notions about what happened aside for the time being. Beginning with receptivity calls upon you to be brave in the face of potential discomfort. Although recognized for his boldness, British prime minister Winston Churchill is known to have said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
If you prefer to avoid interpersonal conflict, you’re not alone. Nonetheless, you have to challenge your habitual inclination and ask for information that may conflict with what you believe—which is really hard to do. Your willingness to be vulnerable like this is necessary, in order to be empathic to another person.
But it’s so important. If you bump into someone by mistake or inconvenience them, a simple expression of regret makes sense and handles the situation immediately. (“Oops, I’m so sorry I stepped on your toes / in front of you in line / into your photograph.”) No ill intent was involved, but hurt may nonetheless have happened. Accidental bumping is a good analogy for what happens when people are close in ways other than physical ones. We bruise one another’s sensitive places, step on one another’s emotional toes. We may not realize that we’ve done it.
In many relationships, we fail to establish what’s called “psychological safety” in the business world, the climate in which it’s not only OK but desirable to give each other feedback, including how the other person affects you. We need this kind of help from other people, because we humans are very bad at recognizing our own errors and their impact. Sometimes we know what we’ve done, but aren’t aware of what a friend, family member, or co-worker experienced. Many of us don’t know how to find out.
As the author Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” Even with a familiar person, in order to understand what they experienced, you have to ask them.
When you do, not only do you benefit from learning about another person’s experience of harm, it can be of even greater value to the one whose story is heard. Having one’s truth known and acknowledged is profound, whether the harm is small and personal or on much larger scales.
It’s easy to mess it up. Despite its value, the skill of listening to and honoring someone else’s experience can be challenging. When a patient of mine told her husband he had hurt her, he kept giving her explanations. She finally said, “You don’t get to talk. I’m simply hurt.” As with many of us, it was hard for him to understand what she needed. She later told me, “It took him two days to see that I didn’t want him to say ‘I’m sorry.’ I wanted him to know how it feels to be me.”
There are so many possible ways to head off unwelcome feedback about our mistaken, insensitive, or otherwise regrettable behavior. (“I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.” “I was only kidding.” “I was doing what I thought you wanted!”) One common response is to reject the message, sometimes before it’s fully delivered. (“Wait a second, that’s not what I meant!” “I didn’t say that!” “You’re taking this out of context.”) It can seem like the other person must be mistaken, misinterpreting, oversensitive (“It wasn’t that bad.” “Why are you bringing that up now / again / like that?”) It’s especially hard to stay silent when someone characterizes your actions in ways that seem inaccurate. You may ask clarifying questions if they help the other person tell her or his story, but in general saying less is better.
It may help you to consider this: You don’t have to change your mind about yourself, to listen to someone else’s experience of your actions. You don’t even have to believe that you were wrong or to blame. But, if reconnecting and healing hurt matter more to you than preserving your “rightness,” you do have to learn to focus fully on another person during a conversation about how they’ve been affected.
Often would-be apologizes feel compelled to “fix” the problem before it’s fully expressed. (“OK, I’ll take the car in and pay for the repair.” “You don’t have to keep that appointment.”) Giving someone what you think they need can feel terrific, but it’s denying the other person a chance to tell the full story.
Step 1 requires that you give up that satisfying fix-it role and adopt a humbler posture, something like the Buddhist “beginner’s mind.” In couples therapy, as in broader American culture, a common piece of advice is, “Don’t just do something; stand there” (attributed to those ranging from Dwight Eisenhower to the White Rabbit in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland”).
That is to say, stay present. Listen.
As hard as it is to take get started on a good apology, you can learn how. First, decide to do it. Then practice.
Churchill, W. (2016) "Monday Motivation: Words of Wisdom to Get Your Week Started." London: Telegraph.
Jamison, L. (2014) The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis, MN: Greywolf Press.