Reflective Apology - How to apologise truthfully and wholly when saying “Sorry” isn’t enough.
“I said I am sorry, why can’t you forgive me?” Have you ever been on the receiving end of an apology like this? Have you ever been on the questioning end of a situation like this? Offering our apology is an important tool in repairing the natural chinks and cracks that can appear in any of our relationships. We, humans, are social creatures, and we are the happiest when we are among others, especially among those we love. Along with the connection we build, we value the help we receive from others. And even when nothing, in particular, is happening, we feel safe just by knowing others are close.
The flipside is that by being so close to others, there are bound to be instances where we get “in each other's hair” and cause each other a problem. The problems are usually caused because there is a conflict between us and somebody else. There is a limited resource for something. Be it at work, the last bar of chocolate on discount at the local supermarket. We may also have a conflict with a person we love about the sharing of the housework or looking after the children, or on a fundamental communication level, our attention. When we share common resources and share responsibilities, we often are the person that misses out on the last chocolate bar, or our partner has neglected to finish his part of the housework, as promised and agreed. Often though, we may cause another person to suffer.
Now, taking that last chocolate bar may cause some minor grief to the other person, to which we can show some empathy and sincere acknowledgement of the situation. By a simple action like this, you can make the other person feel that social norms dictate it is your right to take that chocolate. In this case and others of the same gravity, even a simple “I am sorry, but I was here first” could be more than is expected.
On the other hand, there are situations in which a simple, single worded apology, no matter how sincere, would provide no relief to the sufferer. We can all identify with cases that have been brewing over time as the same behaviour has been repeated over and over no matter how many times we object to it. Or other times, a behaviour that was once a cute quirk, now has become this “monster” which we cannot tolerate because it hits us in our core. In these situations, where relationships are being rocked, personalities are being challenged, and deep values and beliefs are seemingly being defied, we need to come up with more than just a simple “I am sorry”. In cases like these, we need something that packs more of a punch. Something that will show our remorse, out thoughtfulness, and our effort to provide an acceptable solution to avoid similar fouls in the future. Are more suitable way of apologising would be to offer our most Reflective Apology. And what do I mean by a Reflective Apology? Reflective as to what?
Reflective as to what has precisely happened. Reflective as to the reason of our action. Reflective as to what the effect may have been on the sufferer. Reflective as to how the impact on the sufferer has affected us. And finally, but not any less critical, reflective as to our proposed action to fix this problem.
By breaking down the Reflective Apology to the components mentioned above, I would provide you with a developing example. During each step, the apology will include another element. As the example develops, I would like you to reflect on what effect would the apology have on you if you were the person who suffered in the example situation.
Sowing the seeds.
Starting by letting the sufferer know what you are attempting to do allows the sufferer to prepare themselves for what is coming next. We need to be mindful that they may be in some distress and not in the right mental space to listen.
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you.” (A)
Start by letting them know your intentions. A simple, concise, specific and clear statement like the above would appropriately inform the sufferer about your intentions. If they permit you to continue, go ahead. If not, seek another opportunity in which they will be better prepared to hear you.
Reflective as to what has precisely happened
In this part of the apology, the offender acknowledges the offence as clearly and completely as he can. The acknowledgement reflects the behaviour without judgement and prejudice.
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you (A). I did not pay attention to you when you were telling me about your problem”. (B)
By being as clear and specific as possible about who the offender was (I) and the offensive behaviour (did not pay attention), who was offended (you) and putting it in the correct context (when you were telling me about your problem), we put firm foundations of effectively communicating our apology.
Reflective as to the reason of our action
It is time to take full responsibility for our behaviour. And now our mindfulness skills will come into play. All of our behaviours stem from a need that we are trying to cover. If we can identify why we exhibited the offending behaviour by identifying which need we were trying to meet, then we can potentially have control over our behaviour in future situations. A simple brushing off (i.e. it was a busy week) or not taking full responsibility (I was not myself) will not suffice and could backfire by intensifying the conflict we are trying to resolve as the other person may feel that we are not sincere in our apology.
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you (A). I did not pay attention to you when you were telling me about your problem. (B) At that specific moment, I was taking some time out to re-energise for the rest of the day, and I failed to understand the gravity of your situation”. (C)
We are not trying to make excuses, even though it may sound like it. We are identifying the reason why our behaviour was offensive. We are showing the other person that we are mindful of the situation and are already working on appropriately modifying our behaviour.
Reflective as to what the effect may have been on the sufferer
At this stage, we empathically acknowledge how the other person felt as a result of our action. We will need to go a little bit deeper than the superficial feelings of being upset, angry, sad. We will need to go deeper into the reasons why one may feel angry or upset or sad because those feelings are the result of the sufferer’s need not being met. Sometimes they may not even realise how deeply they have been hurt. The behaviour could offend their core values and beliefs, the way they see themselves, how they picture your relationship or even their worldview. By demonstrating that level of understanding, we are making a statement of how seriously we have evaluated our behaviour and highlighting the importance the others feelings mean to us.
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you (A). I did not pay attention to you when you were telling me about your problem (A). At that specific moment, I was taking some time out to re-energise for the rest of the day, and I failed to understand the gravity of your situation (B). I sense that you feel disrespected and lonely by my behaviour and that your problems are unimportant to me” (C).
The level of understanding we have would depend on the type of relationship we have with the sufferer. If we are very close to the other person and we know their core values and beliefs, we would be in a better position to understand how we offended them.
The strength of the relationship would permit us to go deep into our empathy. A precaution needs to be raised for relationships that are under development, as if we go to an unwarranted level of depth with a person we do not have a mature relationship with, we may be on the receiving end of words to the effect of “Who do you think you are to psychoanalyse me”. Hence, we would need to approach this part of the apology with the dynamics of the relationship firmly in mind.
Reflective as to how the effects on the sufferer have affected us
We identified how the sufferer felt, and now we may want to share the effects of our behaviour on us. What are our consequences of the effects of our behaviour? Are we remorseful? Embarrassed? Do we feel humility? And in extreme cases, shame?
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you (A). I did not pay attention to you when you were telling me about your problem (B). At that specific moment, I was taking some time out to re-energise for the rest of the day, and I failed to understand the gravity of your situation (C). I sense that you feel disrespected and lonely by my behaviour and that your problems are unimportant to me (D). My behaviour does not reflect who I want to be, or how I feel about our relationship. I am disappointed and feeling foolish with myself for causing you to feel disrespected and lonely” (E)
By offering details of what the consequences were on our emotional landscape, we are showing to the sufferer that our actions affected us as well. It is critical to assure that we are not trying to compete against the sufferer with the severity of the negative emotions, as this would only make us look like we are diminishing and disregarding their feelings. We demonstrate that our actions had an emotional cost for us as well. A cost that is significant enough to damage one of our prefered qualities and traits.
Reflective as to our proposed action to fix this problem
Admitting a psychological cost may sometimes be enough, but other times it may be seen as not enough for the sufferer to show forgiveness. An emotional cost is not as powerful as an actual cost in some situations, especially if the loss suffered is something concrete and not abstract, as per our example. Being prepared to have an actual loss is not to say that the sufferer is vindictive or vengeful, but we make it easier for them to see and understand our intentions if we are willing to sacrifice something concrete. More importantly, we are showing that we are willing to pay an actual cost to appease the sufferer.
“I want to apologise wholly for my behaviour in the kitchen this evening and the upset it may have caused you (A). I did not pay attention to you when you were telling me about your problem (B). At that specific moment, I was taking some time out to re-energise for the rest of the day, and I failed to understand the gravity of your situation (C). I sense that you feel disrespected and lonely by my behaviour and that your problems are unimportant to me (D). My behaviour does not reflect who I want to be, or how I feel about our relationship. I am disappointed and feeling foolish with myself for causing you to feel disrespected and lonely (E). To improve my listening and emotional connection skills, I will complete this online course so that I can behave more appropriately in future instances” (F).
Paramount to our apology being reflective, is that honesty prevails through all elements. If we are going to “complete the course” as per our example, we say that, and we mean it. If we are feeling remorse and embarrassed about what effects our behaviour had on the other party, we say exactly that. We should not exaggerate our feelings, and equally importantly, we should not play down our feelings. We honour our feelings and recognise them as they are.
One reason why apologies may not have the be genuinely reflective is if we think the apology would be enough, and once we have apologised, the other person ought to forgive and forget. The apology is given to express our feelings about how the sufferer was affected and how we plan to avoid similar behaviours in the future. Once we do that, our job is complete. It is up to the sufferer what happens next. If our primary concern is to make ourselves feel better, we would have missed the reason for the apology. If we go into the apology with our gain in mind, our apology will not be sincere.
We may also be anxious to find out if our apology has provided the sufferer with some relief. And that is natural; we want to restore our relationship to the status was before and start looking into the future once more. However, pushing for forgiveness will most likely counter the effectiveness of the Reflective Apology.
A Reflective Apology requires us to apologise and give the sufferer the necessary space to reflect on their feelings, our apology and the future of the situation. We should have no expectations whatsoever before we apologise or after we apologise. It is up to the sufferer to forgive, forget, or move forward, or even spend some time in their current mood. That is a necessary element in the Reflective Apology process.
As with every skill, putting it to practice pays dividends. If you think that you won’t have many opportunities to practice it, then look no further. You have the perfect person to practice the Reflective Apology. Whom do I hear you ask? Yourself. Yes, yourself. One of the skills that we lack is self-compassion. And one of the reasons we lack self-compassion is that we understand ourselves less than we think we do. So, practice with yourself. What have you done in the last week or month that has upset you? And one further tip. When you have fully formed the Reflective Apology, learn it by heart. And then in a mirror apologise to yourself out loud. Even though this may be yourself, you would feel the full effect of the Reflective Apology. Be prepared! It is worth it.
A case of the P.E.T.'s
Managing our everyday problems is critical to the way we perceive the quality of our life. Little stressors may not be severe enough for us to take any action, so we end up brushing them under the carpet. Eventually thought the stressors would rear their "ugly "head", and what was once a small issue, will have become a significant problem. To prevent this development, the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) model offers a holistic framework and specific tools.
In this article, I will present a scenario involving a parent and their children. Most parents will be familiar with the essence of this scenario, and I will present a preliminary analysis of the scenario from the parents' perspective, an analysis that most of us would think is acceptable. Then I will approach the same scenario from the P.E.T. framework and with the use of some of P.E.T.'s tools to manage the issue in a mutually acceptable manner.
Nod your head if you can identify with the following scenario:
It is obvious to see how this scenario can cause frustration to the parent. The parent, after all, is just trying to be a responsible parent and provide her children with the energy they need to keep going, and the children are not even affording the parent a useful answer.
I would also start to feel irritated. But before I do or say something I would regret, I will go into my P.E.T. toolbox and take this interaction through the looking glass of the P.E.T. model and unpack some of this interaction's deeper layers. What I hope to demonstrate with this exercise is how this scenario could help us draw more meaning and provide us with a better understanding of a seemingly simple scenario.
Some ground rules first. I will set the assumptions I am working with so that we have a common starting point. The first assumption is that the conversation presented is the whole interaction, no other interactions preceded or followed the scenario. The second assumption is that there this interaction has created a problem in the relationship between the parent and children. So with those assumption accepted as true, I proceed.
Having accepted those assumptions, I will attempt to isolate the feelings from the interaction and focus on the facts. The facts that we are concerned about in the P.E.T. model are the exhibited behaviours; the actions your phone can capture. Judgement, understanding, emotional reactions, interpretations and anything else not actionable, are not considered to be facts.
Having that in mind, the facts are; that the parent posed questions to her children and the children responded. I understand that this sounds uninspiring now that we have taken all the emotion and labelling out of the incidence, doesn't it? But, let's keep going. We will add the human factor in later, but in an altogether different way, as would be prudent with the guidance of the P.E.T. model.
Who has got a problem in this scenario?
One of the fundamental principles of P.E.T. is problem ownership. As we have previously accepted that the scenario has resulted in a problem, the next step would be to identify who has the problem. Or in P.E.T. speak, who owns the problem. What appears to happen in the events described is the parent is trying to offer food to her children, and they do not seem too fussed about it. The children do not appear concerned about what they want to eat, but the parent is concerned about what to prepare for the children.
In this instance, the children's' behaviour is not acceptable to the parent, and the parent is the person affected by the interaction. So, the parent owns the problem.
So now we know who has the problem, what next?
There may be several reasons why the parent thinks the children's behaviour is unacceptable. The P.E.T. model assists the parent in assessing why she is judging the children's behaviour to be unacceptable.
One reason the children's behaviour is unacceptable that comes to mind is that the parent is trying to get her maternal instinctual need of feeding her children met. Or perhaps, the parent does not want to prepare food that her children will reject, and it might go to waste along with the time and effort spent to prepare the meal. Maybe the parent is not getting the attention she thinks she deserves, or even, does not receive the appreciation she is expecting. The possibilities are endless, but also, very personal indeed. I would like to make clear that all the reasons hypothesised stem from the parent's opinions; they do not constitute facts. The parent adds the human factors of emotions, meaning, judgement, acceptance or not acceptance of the circumstances and critically appraises the situation.
With a little bit of mindisight, a term coined at a later date from the development of the P.E.T. model, the parent can pinpoint with deep thought the reason or reasons why the behaviour is unacceptable to her.
In summary, in this instance, the parent's needs are not met by the children's' behaviour, so the behaviour is not acceptable to the parent.
We know why, how can we fix that?
When I provided the initial analysis of the situation, I offered a common and expected outlook from the perspective of the parent. The perspective that the children lack communication skills or that the parent is at fault. If those perspectives became the motivation for any response from the parent, then having a constructive outcome would be unlikely. The reason is that the underlying issue would not be dealt with. Instead, the parent would have dealt with what seemingly was the cause of the problem, but in actuality was a fabrication of the parent's imagination. Eventually, when a similar situation arises, the parent would have to grit her teeth and go through the emotional pain again, as no actual progress was achieved, either short-term or long-lasting.
Finding fitting and time-withstanding solutions to our seemingly simple problems is where the P.E.T. program shines. The next step is one that is not what we usually expect. Self-acceptance. By accepting the reality that as a parent our initial reaction to a situation makes us susceptible to making rash judgements. As a parent, I recognise I have my reasons to feel the way I do, reasons that are not under my conscious control, hence there is nothing I can do, at least in the short term, to stop those emotions arising. And I can also use the P.E.T. framework to make sense of how my internal landscape influences the way I perceive other's behaviours.
To break the stalemate that can ensue by placing blame away from us, P.E.T. provides, along with self-assessment, a whole host of tools to prevent the situation happening again (preventive I-messages). If that doesn't work, to better manage the situation through communication techniques (confrontive I-messages, Gear-shifting, No-Lose Conflict Resolution method or Method III), or if that fails, acceptance of the differences in the family and appreciation of individuality. As John Gottman has identified through his research, most problems in a relationship, almost 70% of them, are unsolvable. And that does sound like something we need to be accepting of, as these problems will always be there.
Once again, sometimes it is all too easy to place the blame on the other, away from us. It is natural; who wants to be the person responsible for a challenging situation? What seems to be a simple problem, most of the times tend to be a multi-layered problem. To solve this requires honest self-reflection, courage and integrity. We need to efficiently communicate the deeper meaning we discover to the other parties involved if we wish to make progress. The P.E.T. model assists us in this process by encouraging us to look deep within ourselves and provides tools that motivate self-assessment and to promulgate our feelings, needs and beliefs across the immense gap that is between the other person and us. That would usually do the trick. If not, P.E.T. offers still more skills to help with the situation.
Have you seen the very funny scene in Rush Hour 3 with Chris Tucker in the martial arts school talking to the master, whose name for comedic effect is Yu? (If you haven’t, click on the link www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVnOz7i-JA, it is worth it). It is a typical example of miscommunication, which in this instance can provoke the audience to laugh, but the participants in the conversation are not. Miscommunication is a major cause of many arguments, and we have all experienced it, most of us every single day. It starts from the moment we have will, desires and needs that have to be met. A baby cries out of frustration many times because it cannot have what it wants and neither can it communicate it. Eventually crying will be the baby’s communication pathway and the parent has to make an educated guess, at best as to what the baby is after.
Why is miscommunication so prominent in our lives? Is it the communicator, the listener or the medium? And by medium we mean all the possible ways of communicating. Verbally, from the language we use through to the words we use, from the tone of voice to the quality of the voice and diction. Through our body language, by the way we present ourselves, the position of our hands, where our eyes are looking. Even our facials expressions down to the eyes that “never lie” are paramount to communicating our message.
So the words we use, our body language, and facial expressions are all systems of transferring information. Often they convey messages irrelevant to the actual words we are using, but relevant to the context of what we are attempting to communicate. Often, we are unaware of all the cues that we give out, and we can give out mixed signals. Often, the listener is not paying enough attention to pick up all these cues. And often enough, like in the movie extract mentioned earlier, everything goes awry.
Unfortunately, there are many more things to go wrong and the analysis we portrayed was overly simplistic. There is no mention of emotions, and no mention of cultural differences, or even the setting of where the communication is taking place. More importantly, there has been no mention of the difference seen in different age groups, stages of development, and relationships, like those between a parent and their child. However, this very rudimentary analysis does highlight the issue of how many things can go wrong.
It is a real wonder how we tend to generalise things. It is a vital skill and one that has benefited human kind since, well, forever. By generalising we are able to condense a huge amount of information into manageable chunks, something that we can get our head around, a little bit easier. And this is beautifully illustrated by what our eyes take in and what we perceive. It has been estimated that each frame that the eye sees is equivalent to 1.6 gb of information. For those who watch movies online, a movie lasting around 90min with good quality audio and visual is around 1gb. That is less than the eye captures in one frame, in less than a second, a lot let than a second. So our brains had to find a way to condense, organise, ignore and try to make sense of all the information we receive. The same applies in pretty much all aspects of life. And so do we generalise about the diets of our children, pretending that they can eat what the adults are eating, maybe just change the portion sizes.
However, this approach is erroneous, and our children are worth the effort of finding out how to get it right. For example, a fully grown male that is involved in very intense weight lifting and is trying to add as much muscle as he can to his body, is only able to process approximately 2g of protein per kilogram of body mass. In simple terms, an 80kg bodybuilder can effectively use, at most, 160g of protein in a day. The average male adult who is not involved in any muscle building activities is recommended to take about 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If we consider the token 75kg average male, that would equate to 60g of protein a day. A male child aged around 13-15 years will require about 45-60g of protein per day, or around 0.7-1g per kilogram of body mass. This though is not true for children who are going through a growth spurt. They require up to 2g of protein per kilogram of body mass, equivalent to what the fully grown male bodybuilder requires. Can we afford to not provide our child with the necessary amount of protein? That effectively would mean that we are not aiding our child to fulfill his potential, and no parent would want that.
As parents, guardians, coaches, and minders, we aspire to prepare our kids as best as possible for the challenges of adulthood, just like our parents did with us, and their parents with them. The human race’s and the animal kingdom’s survival depends on the passing on of knowledge to the next generations. So we learn from each other’s experiences, failures and successes as if they were ours. It is essential that we learn from each other’s experiences as much as ours, as everything and everyone around us is our teacher. Benjamin Franklin has been quoted to have said that “Wise men learn from others’ harm, fools scarcely by their own”. And we see that humanity has been continuously applying the principle of learning from others, for example, children listen to their parents, pupils listen to their teachers, and athletes listen to their coaches.
But before we even discuss where the child learns from, we might need to answer the following question first, “When does a child start learning?”. This would give us a better perspective of what the child is learning as it grows older, the parameters the child will set, what is acceptable, what is tolerable and what is enjoyable. All these are linked to early childhood, possibly even to the fetal stages of development, as recent research demonstrates.
Then we can attempt to categorise where children’s influences come from, we can determine that family, friends, school, and other extracurricular environments are all influential. Questions that arise include: What are the primary and secondary lessons a child gets out of each situation? Or alternatively, what are the obvious and not so obvious teachings of a child? Are there any specific situations that influence the child more than the other? If yes, is this a ubiquitous phenomenon or does it apply to specific knowledge acquisition? Very complicated questions arise, with even more complicated answers. There are more and less obvious explanations and influences, there are things we know, things we are still learning, and things that we will eventually learn. For example, it is common knowledge that doing sport may help the child develop into a healthy individual and that it is a great way to regulate body mass. It is also well accepted that the child can benefit psychologically and sociologically. It is also transpiring that being an active child, either by doing sports or some form of performing art, such as playing musical instruments has an effect on the way the brain develops.
The Adolescent Brain
Teenagers! Who understands them? We have all been there, yet it is so difficult for us to understand the younger generation. Is it the way they talk or communicate? Can it be the new fashions and trends? Is it just that the generation gap is too big?
It is a movie cliché listening to the child saying that they do not want to be like their parents in some respect or other and that they want to become a cool parent. However, when the child becomes the parent, history is repeated. Being responsible for your child may overcome your initial plan of being a “cool” parent and of course that is expected of you. But why don’t we “get” the younger generations? After all, we were where they are.
As we all know, kids don’t come with an instruction manual. But if they did, a new version will be coming out as soon as we get to grips with the previous version. Such is the pace of the changes and upgrades that an adolescent has. This can be clearly seen by changes in their shoes and clothes, one moment they are size 6 and 3 weeks later they are size 7.
Science was naïve enough to assume that the rapid body development did not apply to the structures in the brain, advocating that the brain is fully developed from a young age. Thankfully only until recently, as advances in brain imaging techniques have given us a lot of interesting new information that can help explain the changes in the behaviour of adolescents. It started to emerge that the adolescent brain was a “Work in progress”. That is not to say that all the areas of the brain are under development, indeed, it is believed that 95% of the brain is fully developed by the age of 6. For example, the areas that mediate spatial, sensory, auditory and language functions appeared largely mature in the teen brain. Only some regions are not fully developed but possibly more importantly, the connections between areas may not be fully formed.
So the new observations may offer explanations of why adolescents are underperforming compared to adults in certain mental skills such as planning, self-organisational and some lack in ability to control their actions due to their impulsive nature. Encouragingly though, the evidence amassed has showed that some mental skills of mid adolescent individuals, such as working memory, and verbal fluency, are equivalent to those of adults.
Coaching Parents would like to make this knowledge accessible to parents, coaches and all individuals responsible for the development of children. Our objective is to provide the sometimes perplexing scientific information into easily digestible sound bites, and also to provide ways in which the parents can use this information to guide their offspring to a successful adulthood.