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.