The importance of a good apology

I was reminded today of the importance of apologizing well.

Those of us who screw up a lot (me!) have had plenty of practice apologizing. I’m a big believer in it, actually. None of us can do everything perfectly, and whether it’s intentional or not, we get hurt and we hurt others. And yet, the number of people who know how to apologize well is painfully small.

Today, though, I got to experience someone who did it right, who reminded me that a true, heartfelt apology really does go a long way. Here’s how it happened:

I was introduced by a friend via email to someone who is in the midst of writing her first book. In fact, two separate friends had mentioned this same person and said I should get together with her to learn what she’s doing, how she got a book deal, and maybe glean some wisdom that she’s learned along the way. It sounded like a great idea to me, so we set a date to get coffee.

We were supposed to meet this morning at Starbucks at 10 a.m. But, 10 a.m. came and went and she didn’t show. I was really disappointed. I wasn’t just disappointed because I wasted a little bit of time, or because I would miss out on a good connection or helpful advice. I was also upset because it awakened those evil little voices that lurk in the shadows of my mind and invited them to come out and play. You know the ones- the voices that say, “Why in the world would you be so stupid to think that someone would waste their time on you?” or “What a joke. You’re not a real writer. People will never take you seriously.”

It was those thoughts that occupied my mind as I drove to my office. Then, as I stopped at a red light, I noticed a new email. It was the person (who I’ve never actually met or spoken to) who had missed the meeting. This is what the email said:

                        I am just sick. I am so so sorry!!! I just simply forgot. Dang it! How rude. Please forgive me.
When I read that, I felt my heart melt a little bit. I didn’t feel angry at all. In fact, I almost felt embarrassed at her kindness to me. Who am I to deserve such a humble apology from someone who was doing me a favor by taking the meeting to begin with? I didn’t even know how to respond.

Then, my phone rang. I’m not sure how she got my phone number since we’d only spoken by email, but she called. And when I answered, she reiterated the same heartfelt apology. No excuses. No skirting around the issue. She was sorry that she had forgotten, sorry that she wasted my time, and she wanted to make it right. I gave her an out. I said, “I know you’re busy. It’s okay. We don’t have to reschedule.”

She persisted, and I was grateful. We talked on the phone for a while, and she offered me some really good advice and some helpful ideas for my next steps. I realized that even though she had missed the meeting, something in me felt closer to her than I would have if the meeting had taken place as planned. I realized that it was because she apologized well.

Apologizing well is a learned craft. It doesn’t happen overnight or by accident. It happens when someone develops a heart full of humility and values the experiences and feelings of others. It happens when we are willing to take a look at our real selves and acknowledge that we mess up every single day and there is no earthly cure for our flawed humanity. It happens when we let go of our need to be right, to be certain, to be validated.

Early in our marriage when Michael and I would get into a disagreement, we had trouble resolving it and moving on. I would tell him over and over again, “You never can make it right with me. I want you to make it right.” He didn’t know what I meant, and I didn’t have the words to explain it well. What I meant was that I wanted him to be able to apologize well. Now that I’ve had eight years of practice being married and four years of practice at parenting, I understand it better.

A good apology is one that takes responsibility for the wrongs that occurred without requiring anything of the other person. A conditional apology never seems sincere. A good apology acknowledges the feelings and the hurt and sadness. It doesn’t include an excuse. If you ever find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, but…” rest assured that you haven’t apologized very well.

A good apology isn’t one that requires immediate forgiveness. Some people simply can’t stand for anyone to be upset with them, so they apologize for their own benefit, not out of concern for the person they wronged. A good apology gets right to the heart of the issue- I was wrong. I hurt you in this way. I am really sorry. And sometimes, a good apology means pursuing the one who’s been hurt. They might need to hear it a few times to know that you mean it.

It takes a lot of courage to apologize well. We all would prefer to hide behind the pretense that we didn’t or couldn’t hurt someone else. It feels so raw and vulnerable to admit that we did something terrible. But, the irony is that when we do find the courage to apologize, we make a path through the ugliness toward the one we’ve wronged.

I learned something today. I can never aspire not to make mistakes. Those are inevitable. I can aspire, though, to apologize well and try my best to right the wrong.



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