“The best way out is always through.” ― Robert Frost
Woody Allen once said Diane Keaton would wake up in the morning saying, “I’m sorry.” Clearly, some of us apologise too much, but many of us not enough. And most of us, even when we say sorry, often do so clumsily.
If we want to continually learn and grow, then we are certain to make an endless stream of mistakes along the way. It’s inevitable, it’s natural, it’s healthy. So much so, inventors, business tycoons and Oprah types commonly promote “failing” as a requisite for success. It’s practically a badge of honour.
We hear a great deal about the lessons learnt from the crash and burns, but perhaps not enough of one aspect integral to picking up the pieces in the aftermath: the apology.
If we don’t find ourselves apologising periodically, it means that (a) we’re not challenging ourselves enough, and/or (b) we’re not owning up to our errors.
How we act when we’re required to apologise reveals our character. It’s easier to overlook errors; our pride, reputation and sense of self-worth can all feel challenged. It takes courage, responsibility and integrity to say we got it wrong.
How to apologise
Say sorry swiftly and sincerely.
The level of sincerity is usually evident. This is perhaps why it’s possible to feel a bit cheated after hearing an apology – if it doesn’t ring quite true, then the issue feels unresolved.
I recently approached two people with similar complaints. One party took three days to respond, pointed out the things they had done right, and categorised my issues as minor ones. The other party responded immediately, took responsibility for their part, explained their actions, and apologised that they had been misguided.
Not surprisingly, the first compounded my aggravation and the second disarmed me.
I have spent much of my film life apologising. The learning curve was so often dramatic – each film containing a lifetime of lessons – that I was forever stumbling. I put the lighting crew in a hotel for a night in Agra that was so stinky they couldn’t sleep. I left the grip team in the rain, in the dark, on location, without arranging helpers to pack their gear. I miscalculated the rates on a catering deal, costing the executive producer more money. The list, excruciatingly, goes on.
Was I embarrassed and appalled with myself? Decidedly. Did I wish everyone would ignore it and never bring it up? Absolutely. But my conscience made me go to each person concerned to apologise and, where applicable, ask to have the difference deducted from my pay cheque. In each instance, eating humble pie was not only necessary for me and them, but it made our connections stronger.
How to apologise, part II
As our range of technology options expand, so too do the ways we communicate – and hurt – each other. When someone raises a flag, we have to react appropriately.
It’s fine to respond in the same medium that the complaint was given in – text, IM, email, call, in person.
Depending on the severity of the grievance, it may be necessary to upgrade the medium. If they text, we write an explanatory email. If they email, we pick up the phone and call. If they call, then we go in person. With flowers.
Downgrading the medium, such as our sending a text in response to their call, is the equivalent of yawning. Or slamming the door on their face.
How not to apologise
Saying sorry grudgingly.
Saying it so we can say, “I said I was sorry.”
Not actually apologising, and sidestepping the concerns raised.
Downplaying the hurt we caused, so we can feel better about ourselves.
Flipping the charge back to them: “you’re overreacting.”
Minimising, trivialising or dismissing their issues: “I married you, didn’t I?”
If they were upset before, they are likely to feel murderous now.
Why we need to hear sorry
Our being capable adults does not negate the need to hear an apology (“You’re a strong woman,” I’ve heard more than once, as if that excuses their asshole behaviour).
When we have been injured, even deeply, a sincere apology can be a remarkable salve. Hearing someone say sorry is an acknowledgement of our wounds, which is often the starting point of healing.
Getting a proper apology is the only way we know the other party understands what they did was wrong. This applies to lovers, colleagues, and definitely nations who murdered millions of people seeking independence.
Why we need to say sorry
We can’t learn from a mistake until we acknowledge that we made one in the first place.
Saying sorry means we accept and take ownership of our actions.
Assuming responsibility of our poorer choices teaches us humility and grace. It shows us we are fallible, but want to grow. It demonstrates the interconnectedness of our world, where our actions have consequences.
Apologising doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us stronger.
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” ― Aristotle
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Aside this dreadfully misjudged line, this is a reliably touching weepy. Have the tissues handy and watch Love Story.
Read Five Little Pigs, where a woman takes the blame for murder as a means to right old wrongs. Of course, Poirot catches the real murderer by the end, because this is good old Agatha Christie.
“I know you’ve done the very best you could/ But I never understood.” Listen to an apology to a long-suffering mother in I’m Livin’ in Shame by Diana Ross & The Supremes.