I wrote this piece about apology many years ago for several friends/acquaintances whose relationships had ended precipitously. While they were male, I don’t necessarily think this is a gendered issue. I’ve toned it down a bit as my original was really preachy!
Dear mystified male,
If you feel misunderstood by and rejected by your ex-wife, your children, or your former friends who have either drifted away, or suddenly and dramatically rejected you, this might be for you. Maybe, none of it was your fault! What if the FAULT THING is a distraction; a huge distraction to prevent you from doing something positive about your plight?
But maybe she’s mentally ill, wracked with anger, bitterness or overwhelming anxiety stuff and that’s why you and she had to live separate lives from each other? What if that’s distraction number 2? What if it’s a way of thinking that will prevent you doing anything about your situation, or it might even propel you into creating a more lonely life for yourself, or even stuffing up again?
I do think we men often stuff up. It isn’t all our fault. We men are all (I should say mostly, but maybe that provides too much room for some of us to wriggle away, so I’ll say all) trained to be pretty hopeless at our intimate relationships. I’ll talk about that later, but for now I’m more interested in exploring how we’ve hurt others and what we can do about it, rather than making excuses for us. If it helps, see this talk as MAN to MAN.
But before I go on, I must mention one more possible distraction. I’m not questioning our intentions. I guess you have always meant well, and despite your best efforts, some things fell completely flat, or provoked unexplained fits of rage or brooding silence, or even contempt from your loved ones. I’ll approach this later too, but I just want you to know that I DO believe that you/we have meant well.
THIS IS NOT ABOUT OUR INTENTIONS. It is about the EFFECTS OF OUR ACTIONS. That dispenses with distraction number 3. So please, if you find yourself feeling blamed by this writing, try to be man enough to put it aside and read on. It may be hard, but maybe you’re strong enough for the ride. (Despite my paradoxical use of the strength metaphor, please read on if this might help you. It might not, and I’ll trust you to forget it right away if it isn’t useful to you).
Enough rambling. Down to the nitty gritty. What we can do. It’s really quite easy in principle
There are four things we need to do, even better than we have before….
- Listen properly
- Acknowledge the experience of others affected by our actions or words
- While practising 1. 2. and 3. start changing the way we think, speak and most importantly, act.
We could inform the people that you have hurt with your actions WHAT we have learnt from the process and HOW we are determined to change and precisely HOW we will act differently in the future. Then it’s good to do it, as if we don’t our apology starts to lose its authenticity.
If you are now thinking “This doesn’t apply to me.” maybe I’ve nearly lost you. You might have a number of examples of having done 1. 2. and 3., and failed to have had these respected. You’ve done all you can, the ball is in your loved one’s court. Distraction number 4. “IT’S NOW UP TO THEM”.
For those of you still reading, I’d like to question the beliefs that we might have properly apologised, listened and acknowledged. If we think of the once loved people who are now distant from us, or with whom we just can’t have that easy relationship, friendship or even cordial conversation, then for a moment, pretend we are them while we contemplate these three questions:
Has he apologised properly?
How often have I felt really listened to, in a way that I believe he truly understands?
Do I feel like he knows enough about the feelings and experiences I go through, or have been through to put them into words to explain them to another?
If you think your loved one would answer positively to all these three questions, then stop reading. You’ve done all you can, and you probably have a good relationship, or are rebuilding one. Also, if you think that you don’t want to work towards this sort of relationship with that person, then also stop reading. You are aware of the consequences. Without your determination then the relationship is doomed to distant, cold and at best cordial and superficial.
If that’s OK, then I wish you well in your future relationships with others. I really do. There’s nothing wrong with saying enough’s enough, and in some relationships there is just so much bitterness gone under the bridge that it’s not even worth putting your toe back in the water to test it.
But if you do choose to do no more then please, for the sake of everyone, including yourself, stop blaming others and stop blaming yourself. Try to practise a mantra… It was not our fault. We were not given the tools to create what we both needed and we separated to save ourselves future pain.
Both of us contributed to the problems. It is too unfair to try to place blame anywhere. We have to silently both bear the responsiblity for our own contribution to the breakdown. And so on.
It may be that we spend the rest of our lives learning to believe what we are saying and thinking. I think it’s good to ignore (politely) your friends who try to place the blame away from you. They have no right to excuse you of your part in things. I think it’s more helpful to pay more attention to the people who blame us, but only if they can come up with positive suggestions as to how we can change things.
This brings me back to where I left off. How to apologise properly. How to listen properly. How to acknowledge other people’s experience, and how to change the way you think, speak and act.
What follows is a brief summary. These things cannot be just learned by reading them and taking them on-board. They take practice, over and over.
If you stick to them then they might take 6 months to 2 years. And they might well change your life.
You might experience a lot of guilt about the way you have affected others, but with this guilt hopefully the positive side is a new awareness that can bring you joy and a new experience to those around you. Maybe you will probably never feel as comfortable about yourself in the way you do now, so I caution about entering into this lightly.
A model for apology
Many people think that the process of a good apology goes a little like this…
Think about something you’ve done, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, realise what they must have felt, feel guilty about your oversight, seek out the person and tell them you are sorry.
Well that’s part of it, and if this is your “first offence” then it probably is all that’s needed. The other person will feel understood and will trust that you will be unlikely to repeat the insensitivity.
However, if this is a repeat offence, even if you don’t ever mean it, then such an apology is just a guilt reducing action for you, and just hollow words to them. Not good enough. A proper apology is now needed, and I think it goes like this…
To me there are 6 parts to a proper apology, and parts 5 and 6 are the most important..
1. Say I’m sorry. This is the least meaningful bit. Many people have heard “I’m sorry” so many times without a change in behaviour that the words mean very little. They have every right to be cynical.
2. Label your own behaviour you are sorry about.. EG. I’m sorry that I (insert your actions here), they were ………..(eg hurtful, inconsiderate, nasty, irresponsible, whatever you think they were) This is the first part of taking responsibility for your actions. Unless you label them, the other person has no avenue to see if you’re on track. If you label them, they might not agree with your label of their experience, and this is what the labelling is about.. to start to use their words to label your actions. Your own labels are still relevant, but are less relevant to the apology process if they prevent you from acknowledging THEIR experience.
3. Guess, then ask what you can do, if anything to demonstrate your regret, or to make amends (if possible). The guessing is important because if you just ask then you are missing an opportunity to initiate the process of self-examination. If they are forced to take responsibility for putting the language to YOUR actions then they become like your parent, and that is a relationship that they might not want with you. They may not want the burden of teaching you from scratch, but they might be more willing to correct your own attempts.
4. Identify and speak about the lesson you have learnt from examining your own behaviour. Once again it prevents them from feeling like they have to point out the effects of your actions, and spares them from the “parent” role. It also prevents to some extent you feeling like you are always being criticised. Self criticism is a first step towards responsibility for oneself. Try to avoid excuses or explanations. I think they are the same thing. Explanations are best given when asked for. When initiated without consent, they are experienced as excuses.
5. Say what you will do differently in the future, then DO IT, repeatedly, consistently. If you have previously promised change repeatedly then repeatedly not done it, then minimise the verbal commitments, or even stop promising change, and just DO IT. (remember Nike!). If you don’t think you will do it, say why you might not. This might help make your break from this person rather than leading them on.
6. Continually check on whether the changes you have made in your speaking or actions are better for the other person. This means actually asking the question “I’ve been trying to do things differently and better. How am I going- do you think I’m on track?” or “What mark would you give me out of 10 for my new behaviour?” “What extra things would I have to do to get a better grade?”. Don’t ask these questions if you are going to become defensive about their assessment, or hurt or angry. You could welcome it as I think this takes real strength- maybe this is what strong men do?
I welcome feedback.. and apologise in advance if this has been too confronting!