“Sumimasen.” In Japan, this phrase is said a multitude of times each day – almost like language autopilot. It is a way of thanking people for favors you might not return. It is a way to request something or ask pardon for minor blunders. It means, “I’m sorry.”
In the West however, apologizing became so rare that the U.S. government sought to mandate it. By 2005, eighteen states had adopted what is known as “apology legislation,” giving people involved in accidents the opportunity to apologize to the affected without necessarily admitting guilt. Illinois passed a program called “Sorry Works,” which gives doctors seventy-two hours to apologize for malpractice mistakes in hopes of reducing lawsuits and fees. Is there a middle ground here between the automatic response and the legal order? Why is a genuine apology such a rarity?
It may be because the cons of apologizing seem to outweigh the pros. Although it’s common knowledge (and common sense) that apologizing repairs damaged relationships, eases the mind of both parties, and heals emotional wounds all around, it is often a painful experience. People approach apologizing like a harsh punishment. Our inner child quakes in fear as some oppressive authority chides us, “Say you’re sorry, or I’ll make you sorry.” Why? Because saying, “I’m sorry,” and meaning it requires setting your pride aside and opening yourself up to rejection. No apology can be genuine or effective without an admission of guilt.
The admission of guilt can be either an uplifting experience or a harrowing one. On one hand, there is something virtuous about standing up and admitting your faults. On the other, there is always the possibility that once your last point is made the metaphorical axe will fall. This juxtaposition makes for great drama — and many a blockbuster movie moment. You’ve seen it a hundred times: hardened criminals/ handsome knights/ actually innocent heroines are bathed in spotlight on witness stands/ gallows/ doorsteps and they gulp/ sigh/ sniffle as they begin to unburden their souls. Usually, whether or not they apologize effectively determines their fate. But, again, what does it mean to apologize effectively?
According to Dr. Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, the key is to focus on and empathize with the other person. An apology will not work if you make it about you (“You can’t expect me to be perfect”), make it sound like a burden (“It pains me to do this…”), condition your apology with reasons you were right (“I’m sorry you’re mad, but…”), or stick to the superficial (“Mistakes were made”). These all fall into the category Dr. Lazare calls “trash apologies” and often result in bad feelings. An understanding of the damage done, plus genuine remorse must be a part of any successful apology.
In this light, Beverly Engel offers a simple rule of thumb in her book, The Power of Apology. In order to offer apologies that will be “heard and believed,” assure people that they will not be wounded again. Remedy is the action plan of the apology. It should outline how you intend to make up for, or learn from, your mistake. It carries the promise that a repeat offense isn’t on the horizon.
This combination of Engel’s “3 R’s: regret, responsibility, and remedy” brings about the moments in our blockbuster movies where the audience sighs with relief. The jury chooses to be lenient, the executioner merciful, the lover genuinely sympathetic. In real life, it provides all those things we hold synonymous with forgiveness (although forgiveness may be awhile in coming) – restored bonds and a return to peace of mind.
In the words of Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston, “An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything.” The secret to the successful bond however, is knowing where and how to glue it.
Five Components for an Effective Apology
1. Be genuinely sorry and say so clearly.
2. Describe the offense and accept responsibility for your behavior.
3. Ask how you can rectify the offense/mistake/error.
4. Assure the receiver that you will not repeat the offense.
5. Request that your apology be accepted.
© 2010 New Perspectives. Permission to copy this article is granted provided the author is notified and the following bio information is included:
Kathleen Passanisi, PT, CSP, CPAE is an internationally recognized professional speaker, therapeutic humor expert, healthcare professional, and author. A proud member of the NSA Speaker Hall of Fame, she has spoken to bazillions of people about life balance, wellness, the power of perception, women’s issues, and the link that exists between humor and health. For more information on Kathleen’s presentations, books, SPARK magazine and products, please visit the New Perspectives website at www.kathleenpassanisi.com.
Annie Passanisi, co-creator of SPARK magazine, is a Chicago-based actor, singer, writer, marketer, and polka dot enthusiast. Her passion for applied positive psychology has led her to join her award-winning professional speaking mother on the platform. For more information, please visit www.TheAnniePassanisi.com.
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