Recently, I came across a Jane Brody column in the NYTimes headlined, “The Right Way to Say I’m Sorry.” While Brody mostly looks at the efficacy of apologies between neighbors and friends, the gist of what she has to say–and the commentary of experts she consults–also applies to our relationship with our grown children.
Who among us us hasn’t inadvertently–or in anger–offended a grown child. Maybe we’ve been unfairly critical (even if we were being “honest”) about something as major as their life style, or as frivolous as their housekeeping or the cut of their hair. (The latter is a surprisingly big source of self-inflicted wounds.) Feelings get hurt, emotional buttons may be pushed–buttons that hark back to childhood wounds–and suddenly, the “innocent” thing we said has been blown up and out.
All of which is to say, whether the offending remark or action is our fault or not, an apology has the power to soothe wounds, repair harm and mend relationships. This can be accomplished by an apology delivered correctly.
Combing through Brody’s column, I came up with four tips for delivering an “I’m Sorry” that might actually meet its repair-harm objective.
- Offer the apology straight up–with no “but” attached to it. A “but” is an excuse that counters the sincerity of the message. No explanations required–or desired.
- Don’t ask to be forgiven for your trespass. It’s up to the offended party to decide whether and when they want to forgive. The experts say it’s not your place to tell anyone to forgive or not forgive.
- The focus of the apology should be on what you’ve said or done and not on your child’s reaction to it. “I’m sorry you feel that way” suggests you aren’t really sorry at all.
- Allow the offended party to vent. It’s called non-defensive listening. Resist the temptation to refute, argue over or correct their version of whatever happened.
For those who want more insights into apologizing, Brody’s sources were Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? and Beverly Engel’s The Power of Apology.
Brody isn’t the only columnist addressing the apology issue. In a Philip Galanes Social Qs column, a reader wanted advice on repairing a relationship with a friend she had stood up for lunch a year ago. Galanes advised an apology, “I’m sorry for treating you badly,” but also added a line that asks for forgiveness (see Tip 2 above). Though he suggests the request, he adds this note: “Sadly, we don’t control whether pals accept out apologies. But trying to put things right eventually is better than not trying at all.”
Ditto and double-down when it comes to our kids.