A lot has been written about apologies. How they are important, and how they should be worded. But I think there is important room for improvement, if the goal is to create a stronger relationship!
Just this morning, I did a quick search on “how should I apologize”. I wanted an update on the latest popular culture of apologies. Here are two of the top answers that showed up:
Notice that both of these have the phrase “admit you were wrong,” as in, please forgive me, I was wrong, wrong, wrong! There are also good elements, as I see it, such as self-affirmation and acknowledging the other person’s feelings, although they omit to include asking the other person what they are actually feeling.
I am not against saying “I’m sorry”, but the distinction is in the details. “Sorry” is not about being wrong or guilty, but it is a quick acknowledgment that creates an opening for discussion of something important. It is about sharing one’s sadness for causing the other person pain, and it is about helping them understand what in your own mind and being caused you to take an action (including speech as an action) that caused the other person pain.
What does a “guilty sorry” sound like? It sounds something like, “I am so, so sorry! Can you ever forgive me? I will never do that again!” The other person then either says, “Sure, I forgive you” or perhaps says “No, I am too angry”. Either way, they have not communicated much nor really healed what happened.
I suggest that a more productive way to say one is sorry sounds more like “I am sorry that my action hurt you; I was not thinking clearly. Can we talk about this?”
If the other person is ready, in the present or a bit down the road, it leads to real discovery and empathy towards what the offended party experienced, as well as sharing of what the apologizer was feeling and thinking at the time that caused the action in question, so there can be more mutual understanding.
Acknowledging the other person’s pain is part of that, and so is understanding more about what caused the upsetting action.
When I am in a supermarket (or elsewhere in public), if a person passes anywhere within two feet of me they often say “I’m sorry!” and they continue on with their shopping. At times, I respond, “Please don’t be sorry.” Yes, I do say that, at times.
Really, I would enjoy it more if the person who passed close by turned and smiled at me, or turned and said “Good morning!” There is more personal contact in that kind of interaction!
With the weight of guilt ready to show up in a guilt-laden apology at a moment’s notice, it is hard to breathe freely and enjoy each moment.
The movie Love Story, based on the novel, created the famous sentence “Love means never having to say you’re sorry“, but without an explanation of what that means, the quote became a source of derision rather than insight. Maybe it was explained better in the book.
Yes, if I bump into a stranger or a loved one and jostle them I will say “I’m sorry” or “Sorry!”, but will pause and try to determine if any further exchange would be helpful. The goal is to let them know that their importance is being seen; it is not to express guilt or to avoid their wrath.
My preference in all of this is to promote real communication, not pro forma and sometimes exaggerated apologies, or the opposite, avoiding of apologies because in anticipation it feels like one would be beating oneself up and get beaten up. Both those extremes are more common than might first appear.