Monday, June 06, 2005


"I am sorry" -- the technology of apology

Communication skills are learned. Unfortunately, we all learn them from the world around us, where communication is far from careful or clean. We all end up as ineffective communicators.

Lesson One - Apology

An effective apology has three distinct elements:

(1) recognition of the damage
(2) expression of remorse
(3) repair of the damage

The first element is usually the easiest. If someone yelps, "ow!" then we know we something has occurred to cause pain. If we are told, "You hurt me!" then we should have a clue. Occasionally the hurt is more subtle and the damage is hidden or delayed. Our error may have been one of omission and it is later that we find, "Yesterday was our anniversary!" In any case, that light bulb moment occurs when we know that we are at cause in some disruption of the way things should be.

If we resist that moment or defend against it or deny our culpability, then the process cannot begin. The most difficult recognition is when we are held at fault, but we feel innocent as accused. It is still possible to RECOGNIZE that something occurred that has caused a breakdown or injury.

Step two belongs to our superego. Remorse should be natural. If we have caused a problem we, naturally. should feel bad. If we cause harm and do not feel remorse then we are wired wrong. If we are wired wrong then we have far greater problems than communication. The technology of step two is to EXPRESS our remorse. "I'm sorry" is the standard shorthand for "I hurt because I hurt you" or "I truly regret messing things up". Succinctly and effectively having communicating our actual remorse is the key.

Step three is two fold:

(a) cleaning up the mess
(b) preventing recurrences

After we have effectively communicated our sorrow for the problems we have caused, we must set out to repair or clean-up the the situation. Sometimes this is easy, other times it is difficult. It may be impossible to help if we are offering in the face of anger, "Haven't you done enough damage already??" Often the damage is irreparable. If unfixable, acknowledgment of that state is mandatory. If damage control or repair or clean-up is possible, jump in and do it, to the maximum of resources and abilities.

Whether or not repair is feasible, setting up systems or learning new methods or skills, or altering behaviors such that recurrences of the problem are eliminated or minimized is the last stage of apology. Ask, "What must be done so this won't happen again?" and then act upon the answer.

Thank you for one of the most coherent analyses of apology and remorse that I have ever read. I am printing it out to use as a guide for myself and in parenting my kids. I feel it will serve as an effective "check and balance" to make sure we are all learning the valuable lessons that can be derived from the inevitable mistakes we all make that warrant apologies.
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