I think that we would all agree that it is important to apologize when we have done or said something that has hurt, harmed, was made in error, or was discourteous. Yet as we consider the many apologies that we have made and those we have received, there are many different kinds and with different intentions. Consequently, it is important to look at some of the types of apologies and identify the kind of apology civility is describing.
The first apology that we made or received were the ones that probably our parents demanded of us to make. We did or said something to a sibling, a friend, or a parent and were told to apologize immediately. We were told that we had done something wrong and needed to make amends. We did so without really understanding what this action meant. The air was cleared for the moment. These same behaviors continued to reoccur and an apology followed.
As we grew a bit older, we did not want to apologize. We saw the other person’s behavior and felt they too were to blame. No one needed apologize. With a refusal we may have been sent to our room to think about it. There was probably little thought, we did other things, eventually we were bored in our room, and gave the apology to get ourselves out of the room. Again this scenario was repeated.
If we learned nothing else about apologies, we translate our childhood experiences into two apology practices. The first is when we see that someone is unhappy, upset, things are not going as desired, we somehow believe that we are to blame in some way and apologize. In the workplace it often seems that the subordinate is continually apologizing for something that goes wrong that is no fault of their own. They simply apologize to just try and make things seem a little better. The same is true in families, friendships, and social situation. A good example that I see often is the bridge partner who is putting their hand down and says that they are sorry for the cards they have. They were dealt them randomly, they had followed the bidding guidelines and said nothing, and it was their partner who had continued to bid. There is nothing to apologize for.
The second pattern is person who either hastily apologizes or after much consternation usually in a low voice and very quickly says, “I’m Sorry.” This person does not want to apologize and sees that they have done nothing wrong. The same hurtful behavior is repeated with the trite apology.
But let’s look at the crucial reason that an honest, sincere, heartfelt apology is needed in any ongoing relationship. When someone does something that hurts, harms, or disappoints you, you have a mixture of uncomfortable feelings- sad, angry, confused, lonely, etc. These feelings do not completely go away by themselves. If you do not hear from the person, you try to find a way to rid yourself of those feelings. You make excuses for this one incident. You look for some fault in yourself. You rationalize the situation. While you begin to feel better about the other person, there remains a kernel of pain. Now imagine that there are repeated incidents of hurt. Those kernels get bigger and bigger. There comes a point where you can no longer be civil to that person.
An apology needs to include three elements. The first is the person who has acted in an unkind way needs to take responsibility for action that was taken. “I did not call you when I promised that I would.” You have acknowledged that you did not meet the responsibility that you was yours. Next you need to convey to the person that you fully understand how that lack of responsibility affected the wellbeing of the person. “I do know that you worry when I am away and have asked me to check in to let you know that everything is fine. I caused you to worry unnecessarily and for this pain I am truly sorry” Finally you need to let the person know what you intend to do so that behavior does not happen again. “When you ask me to call in next time, I will select a time that will fit my schedule and I will make that call to you. I intend to not worry you needlessly again.” You follow through on that and call each time. Those kennels of pain will recede. You will have a healthy and civil relationship.
Orlaine I. Gabert
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