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The Fine Art of An Apology

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No one ever taught me how to apologize. I know that sounds silly, but it is a skill that does not come easily to me. For a long time I thought mumbling “sorry” under my breath was as good an apology as anyone could expect from me. And, I only did that under extreme duress.

Now I find myself struggling to teach my son how to master this difficult skill. As I ungracefully slog through the mechanics of how an apology works, I realize that these days when accepting responsibility for the harm we do others is not exactly in vogue (witness Enron among others), making a heart-felt apology
can feel a lot like leaving yourself open to a shark attack.

What I now know, though, is that mastering this skill is one of the single greatest things I can do to foster the growth of my own integrity. It also lays the foundation for healing and for magic in any relationship. Apologizing is good for me and I can get better at it with practice. And so can my son.

So, how do we make a sincere apology? This outline I’ve put together is a good place to start:

1. Use good timing. Apologizing as quickly as you can is a good rule of
thumb – unless you have really screwed up and your apology needs to
be thoughtfully approached.

2. If at all possible, make your apology in person. Doing it over the
telephone is for wimps. If an in-person apology is absolutely
impossible, hand write it (no e-mails, not typed-up letters) and put
it in the mail.

3. Look the person in the eye.

4. Use a warm, sincere voice.

5. Throughout your apology, be sure you emphasize how important the
other person is to you. “I really value you as a co-worker.” Or “Your
friendship really matters to me.”

6. Own what you did and be specific.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. Yelling is never okay.”

7. Acknowledge its likely impact – causing pain or doing damage.
“My yelling has jeapordized our realtionship and I am sure it hurt
you.”

8. State what you intend to do next time to keep from repeating your
mistake. “Next time I feel angry enough to yell, I will take a walk around the
block instead.”

9. Ask for forgiveness. Depending on the severity of your mistake, the
other person may not be ready to answer and that is okay.”Will you forgive
me?”.

Here’s the tricky part of this last step (especially for my son). We must be
prepared to live with a “yes” or “no” answer. Though we hope to be forgiven,
we are the ones who screwed up and we can’t force the other person to respond
a certain way. If we go into an apology expecting a certain outcome, we are not
apologizing – we are manipulating.

10. Listen to and validate whatever feelings the other person wants to share
with you about the impact of your actions. I cannot over emphasize the importance
of this final step. This is the step that will let the other person know your apology is
heart-felt.

Now, here is a list of what NOT to do:
1. Do not make excuses.
2. Do not explain or rationalize why you did what you did – then the
apology becomes about you, not about the other person and your
relationship.
3. Do not say vague things like “I’m sorry for whatever I did to make
you mad.”
4. Do not apologize for how someone else feels – “I’m sorry you are
hurt by what I did.” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

For me, the best part about apologizing is that, even though I am scared to death while I am doing it, I feel so much lighter after I’ve done it. I may still wish I hadn’t screwed up in the first place, but cleaning up a mess I made is the next best thing. It’s all about taking responsibility for myself and my actions.

Now to explain the benefits of all that to a six year old……

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