Nov 192013

It would be impossible for the seven billion of us living on planet Earth not to tread on each other’s toes and rub each other up the wrong way from time to time. So, when it happens, how can we best deal with it in order to repair the situation?

When to apologise (and when not to)

For some, “sorry” is the hardest word to say, while for others, the word spills from their lips with such frequency it appears to be their default response to anything that happens.

If you’re in the latter category, I recommend you give some thought to why this is. What are you apologising for? Are you actually responsible for whatever has gone wrong? I’m thinking here of the times I’ve apologised for stuff that nobody could logically consider my fault, such as when my cousin came to visit me and it rained. Because as I was growing up I felt myself blamed for all sorts of things that were far outside my control, I continue to feel the impulse to seek forgiveness for practically any negative event that takes place around me.

It’s an impulse I need to resist, for several reasons.  An endless stream of apologies can be irritating, prompting the people on the receiving end to react in one of two ways: either they will feel obliged to keep reassuring the apologiser, when they might more usefully be concentrating on sorting out the problem, or they may buy into the grovelling and start berating the apologiser for whatever has transpired, whether or not it was her fault. Constant apologising can backfire and, in any case, the guilt and shame that accompany it are corrosive.

However, this is not to say you should never apologise unless you have personally and deliberately done someone down. Not taking responsibility when the buck stops with you is even worse than assuming responsibility for events outside your control. It is the antithesis of leadership, integrity and courage – and it rarely fools anybody anyway. If I go into a busy restaurant, for example, where I have booked a table and the waiter says he has no record of my booking and there is no table available, I will feel far more mollified if he apologises and offers to make amends, rather than blaming the mistake on junior staff and shrugging it off.

In some circumstances, it can take a lot of strength and confidence to apologise for an unintended consequence of something you’ve done, but in my experience it can be a healing and immensely helpful thing to do. What I have in mind here is the times my partner inadvertently upsets me. In some areas, I’m extremely sensitive and easily distressed and, when everything is fine, I accept I have to take responsibility for this and not force those around me to walk on eggshells. Once the wrong button has been pushed, though, I find it very hard not to react in childish ways, either crying and screaming in rage or withdrawing and hiding in fear. With most people, this behaviour tends simply to escalate the situation, as they feel threatened and defend themselves either by whinging (this is how it feels to me at the time) about how this isn’t their fault and I’m being unfair, or by attacking me back. I thank God that my man has the wisdom and strength to respond to me as the child I become in that state. He tells me calmly, gently and sincerely that he’s sorry for whatever it was he said or did that upset me. He puts his arms around me and we talk about it till it’s all over. He learns from each incident and never makes the same mistake twice, and gradually I’m learning too that I can trust him and need to deal with these things in a more grown-up way.

How to apologise

The thing to remember when you’re apologising is that it’s for the other person’s benefit, not yours. If the purpose of your saying sorry is purely to elicit absolution from the wronged party, spare a thought in advance for how you may feel if absolution is not forthcoming. If your transgression has been serious, you may need to give the other person some time and space to process what has happened before you can expect a move towards forgiveness – but just because you don’t receive it immediately it doesn’t mean you will never get it.

A meaningful apology, one that can repair the damage, obviously has to come from the heart. It also has to come with no strings attached and never be followed by the word ‘but’. And it goes without saying that your apology has got to be accompanied by a change in behaviour – or at least a clear and sustained attempt that moves steadily in the right direction. You don’t have to be perfect but you do have to be sincere.

How to receive an apology

If someone is constantly showering you with unwarranted apologies, it’s useful to point this out. In case the person hasn’t realised they have this tendency, making them aware of it can help them to change it. If it goes on and you have the sort of relationship that allows this kind of thing, I recommend you challenge the apologising and talk supportively about what’s behind it.

If the apology is both warranted and sincere, accept it and say thank you. If the transgression has been so serious that you need time to process it, by all means say so – and take that time – but, if the wrongdoer is genuinely sorry, rejecting the apology will just make it harder to heal the rift. The angrier and more upset you are, the more difficult it almost certainly is for the person who has caused it to apologise. This being the case, if he/she has summoned the courage and humility to say sorry, I feel it’s only fair to accept it graciously. Then you can both start work on putting things right.

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