The Power of an Apology (and how to do it)

The movie “Love Story” came out in 1970 and the famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” became a relationship mantra for many who saw the film.  However, in life, one of the most elegant and powerful things a person can do is apologize to another.  This is especially true when a relationship is ending.  In divorce or separation tensions are high, feelings are raw and communication can be very difficult.   In mediation, couples are free to discuss whatever they need to in order to reach an agreement.  This frequently means my clients talk about the past (that can mean yesterday or last week) and how they feel about things that one or the other said or did.  Once in a while (but not often enough) one or both will apologize to the other.  The apology is very powerful and truly helps a person feel they have been heard.  Once they feel that, the mediation continues and usually with great success.

You may be asking how on earth you can apologize to someone who has hurt you, betrayed you or treated you badly.  Or, how can you apologize when you are so angry yourself?  To paraphrase an old cliché, holding a resentment against another is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  Well, no one said this would be easy!  So here are the steps:

1.   Find a calm time for yourself and reflect on  the resentment and how you got it, the circumstances, the conversation, all of it.  Now, take a good long look at your own behavior without trying to justify it.  Be completely honest, no one is judging you.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would have felt if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.  Write about it if that helps you to gain clarity.  How do you feel about the way you behaved?  Are you ashamed? Would you have spoken that way to anyone else?  OK.  Now, forgive yourself and do the right thing so you can move past it…make a true and complete apology.

When you are speaking with or writing to the other person:

2.  Acknowledge the event or conversation that warrants the apology.  For instance you may say, “When we talked yesterday I said…”

3.   Take responsibility for your own behavior and show your recognition of it.  This may sound something like, “I could have chosen other words.” or, “I spoke without thinking”

4.   Acknowledge how your behavior and/or words affected the other person.  For example, “When I told you I thought you were a jerk for __________, I can imagine how hurt you must have felt”  OR “If someone had said that to me I would have felt attacked.”

5.     Make a statement or judgment about YOUR own behavior such as “I was very inconsiderate of your feelings when I said that.” OR “What I said was insensitive”

6.     Make a statement of regret (“I am sorry I said those things to you.) Avoid saying things like ” I’m sorry you get upset or hurt so easily.” as that will only put the person on the defensive.

7.     Make a statement or indication of future intentions.  This might be something like, “In the future I will call a time out if I do not feel I can be productive in the conversation.” OR, “I will think more carefully before I blurt things out.”

If you cannot make an apology on your own, ask for help.  Let your therapist guide you through your “script” or let your mediator guide you “in the moment” when something happens in  mediation itself.  The purpose of an apology is to give both of you the ability to move forward.  It is an act of integrity and humility and one that is very powerful.  It is an act of great strength and courage and is not to be done as a means to make someone else apologize to you.  A true apology is given with NO expectation of reciprocation.

Always remember you have no control over the other person but you always have control over how you chose to behave and respond to difficult situations.

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