Why a Good Apology Requires Wading in The Muck

A good apology is a rare and treasured gift.

It’s a treasure for both the giver and the receiver because a true apology includes a transformational moment of empathy. Consider this common workplace challenge:

Someone takes credit for your idea at a meeting.  They realize it afterwards, or someone helps them realize it. They decide to apologize. Most apologies are one of three types:

  1. The brush off apology
    The person knows they need to apologize. But they’d actually prefer to avoid it. So the, I’m sorry part is very short, but the here’s why it’s no big deal part is extended. They say things like, “It’s just a meeting. Nobody really pays attention to who comes up with what. Besides, you get credit for so many things.”

The intent may be good; they want to apologize. But they don’t want to deal with any messy feelings, particularly yours. So they minimize and point out all the logical reasons why you shouldn’t be angry. The effect is, I’m sorry you’re mad, let me explain why you shouldn’t be. It’s better than no apology, but not by much.

  1. The I’m an idiot apology
    This one often follows the brush-off, but it also stands alone. If you push saying, “But you did steal my idea,” this person becomes defensive and defeated. They say things like, “I guess you think I’m just awful, I’m sorry, I can’t do anything right here.” This deflects the actual incident by turning it into a blanket character attack. It seems like the direct opposite of the logical brush off apology, but make no mistake, it springs from the same source. Instead of addressing how their actions affect you, the I’m an idiot apology puts their emotions front and center. The person becomes so beleaguered, harassed, criticized, and defeated, they can’t possibly address your issues.

Both of the above apologies fail, because the person who was wronged feels unheard.

  1. The empathy apology
    This one takes work. It’s where the person who made the mistake takes the time to fully understand the impact their actions had on the other person. In the meeting example, instead of reflexively saying, I’m sorry, ask yourself:  what does it feel like to have someone take credit for your idea? What if it happened in front of your boss?  What if it was an idea you had been working on for a while? Thinking it through gets you into an empathetic state.

Then, when you do apologize, ask how the other person felt, and try to name their feelings. Say something like, “I imagine you felt horrible sitting there listening to that happen.”

This critical step – validating the other person’s feelings – is missing from most apologies. Which is a shame because these moments of empathy are the transcendent moments that enable you to move on.

Many apologies are simply an attempt to get the other person to stop being angry or sad. People avoid naming the other person’s emotions hoping they will go away. But the opposite happens. They fester. People are much more willing to let go of hurt and anger when they feel seen and heard.

No one likes to deal with other people’s negative feelings, especially if you were the cause. But the only way out of conflict is through it. If you want to move on, you have to be willing to wade through the muck.

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