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Magic Words

Conflict makes people uncomfortable, and nobody likes to feel uncomfortable. So people learn to use a variety of tools to make the situation better so they don't have to suffer. One of those tools is the magic phrase, "I'm sorry." 

I'll explain with a common scenario. Trevor is 2 and a half years old. Trevor likes to climb on the furniture even though his mom repeatedly tells him not to. One day, he knocks over a picture frame and it breaks. Furiously, mom comes in the room and starts shouting, which scares Trevor. This tension between he and mom is very uncomfortable, and contributes to a feeling of shame in him. His mom sits him down in this tension and explains that she needs him to apologize. "Say you're sorry. I need you to say you're sorry." For the first time he utters the words, "Sorry, mommy." Mom is so proud that he said these words and immediately smiles and gives Trevor a hug, breaking this tension. 

Wow, magic words! Over time, Trevor has learned that all he has to do when his mom is mad at him is say these words (and appear remorseful) and his mommy smiles, hugs him, and he feels loved again and out of trouble. I found this same message in a children's song:

I'm sorry, so sorry if I did something to hurt you

I'm sorry, so sorry. It wasn't a nice thing to do.

I'm sorry, so sorry. Forgive me, can we still be friends?

I'm sorry, so sorry. Sorry can be hard to say,

But helps to take the bad feelings away.

And I want to take the bad feelings away.

The message is clear. I can say some words to magically make the situation better, right a wrong, and restore good feelings between us. It's interesting that adult songs share the same message (for example, "It's too late to apologize"), as do so many apology cards. What kinds of messages are conveyed in the following sample of cards? They all suggest that apologies can fix, heal and restore relationships.

Changing the Subject

I argue that an effective apology can help heal a relationship, but not by using the words, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me." When a person uses these phrases to ask for (or beg for) forgiveness, they effectively change the focus on the conversation (see also my blog on Fighting). The conversation begins by an injured party expressing how they are feeling (hurt, frustrated, angry, disappointed, let down, disillusioned, etc.). This will most likely cause the perpetrator to feel a sense of shame and discomfort. In response to this discomfort, he or she may likely utter words like, "I hurt you. I'm sorry. I'm such a lousy partner. I was only thinking of myself. I didn't want to hurt you. (notice how the subject has changed to this person's remorse and intentions!) How could you ever forgive  me," usually accompanied by body language and facial expressions that communicate remorse or guilt. This humbling or groveling touches the injured person emotionally, who is then drawn into a care-giving role having to rescue the groveler. This is a very familiar dance, as seen in this typical exchange:

Linda: You really insulted me in front of my friends again. How could you say such things to me.

Barry: What? I did't mean anything by it. It was just a joke. (Defensiveness, talking about his intentions)

Linda: But I really got embarrassed and it hurt. I feel like you don't care about my friendships at all.

Barry: Okay, I'm sorry I said those things in front of your friends. I didn't mean to upset you. (Restating his intentions)

Linda: It's not the first time I've felt you've undermined my friendships. You know how important they are to me.

Barry: Okay, okay. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. I guess I'm just a thoughtless jerk. (His apologies didn't work, so he's trying to make her feel sorry for him)

Linda: You're not a jerk. You're just careless with your words sometimes. I wish you could think before you speak. (Now she's talking about him!) But I'm really pissed off when you never seem to have my back. (She caught herself and tries to change the subject back to her feelings)

Barry: I said I'm sorry. What more do you want from me?! (Slumps and tips his head in shame, as if he's now injured himself) I guess I can't do anything right, and can't understand why you keep putting up with me. I'm really, really sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends. (He's intensifying his apology efforts). You have to forgive me. I really love you. (Effort to emotionally connect with her so that she'll come over and comfort him)

Linda (Sensing that her feelings aren't going to be heard): Okay, I guess you're forgiven, but please try to think before you speak next time. (The "but" statement indicates that she's still wanting to talk about her feelings)

Barry (Finally feeling comforted): Okay, I promise. 

"I'm Sorry" is a Period on a Conversation, a Band-aid on the Heart

All too often, the words "I'm sorry" are used as a way of ending a difficult conversation. Refer to the example with Linda and Barry. When Barry states that he is sorry the first time, he is expecting that the conversation is over, that he doesn't have to endure any more discomfort by this subject. Unfortunately for him, she keeps talking. He wants the conversation to be done, and when he exclaims, "I said I'm sorry," he is saying to her, "You didn't hear me the first time, so I'm going to repeat it. Are we done now? I need to be done now." 

The next time you state that you are sorry, try to be mindful of your expectations in that moment. Are you expecting a response from the other person, maybe in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation? This is after all what you learned from your exchanges with your parents. When a person apologizes, they are forgiven and all is better, right? It's like putting a Band-aid on the feelings. When your mom put a Band-aid on your boo-boo and kissed it, the hurt was supposed to go away, magically ("It's all better now"). If you want to heal your partner and make them feel better, and don't want to hear any more of how you upset them, you can end it by apologizing. "I'm sorry. Period. Conversation over. Nothing more can be said after a period." And if you discover that your apology is not working as a period or a Band-aid, and your partner is not yet done talking, monitor how you are feeling at that moment. If you are experiencing more tension, that is a clue that you are trying to use these words as a shut off valve for the talk.

"I'm Sorry" as a Comma, not a Period

An apology can be very effective if you honor the feelings of the person you are apologizing to. Shutting off a conversation prematurely is telling a person that their feelings don't matter, and they make you uncomfortable. When a person is emotional, what they may need more than your apology is for you to listen to them, to learn about them, validate them, and understand them. We learn best from listening and asking questions. Becoming a good listener and putting your own discomfort aside, the person who is hurting is allowed to express their feelings and know that you truly care about them. You do this by making the apology a comma rather than a period. In other words, instead of "Okay, I'm sorry," you state something like "I apologize for what I said. Now help me to understand your feelings more so I can avoid hurting you in the future."

When you turn the apology into a comma, you are communicating respect for the other person. You are inviting them to teach you about them, and you are not making assumptions about them or telling how they should feel. By inviting conversation rather than trying to end it, you communicate to them that their feelings and words are important and matter to you. Listening, not magic words, is the apology. With Linda and Barry, the conversation could have gone very differently, as in this exchange which happened in my office:

Linda: You really insulted me in front of my friends again. How could you say such things to me.

Barry: Wow, there is such disconnect between what I intended and how that went down. I'm sorry if my words hurt you. Will you talk to me about how you're feeling? ​(There's the comma!)

Linda: Sometimes I feel a little inadequate around my friends and when you make comments like that, it really brings out my insecurities. 

Barry: Tell me more. ​(Inviting conversation rather than shutting it down)

Linda: Living in a smaller house than them and not having such a rich lifestyle, I feel I can't measure up. I at least want them to see that my marriage is strong. It's one area I feel I can, well I hate to use this word...compete. There, I said it. I feel competitive with them, and I at least want to know that you are on my side. ​(Notice her story is about her needs and feelings, not about Barry)

Barry: So when I say comments like the one I said, even though it was a joke, it makes you feel like I'm not on your side, and if I'm not then the competition is even more exacerbated. Your feelings are understandable given the social comparisons people tend to make (Validating)

Linda: Exactly! 

Barry: I understand now. Whenever we're around your friends, I'll be sure to remember to have your back.

Linda: I already feel like you have my back, just from listening to me just now. ​(Forgiveness!!)

There was no plea for forgiveness in this situation, yet Barry felt forgiven just by the fact that he was able to validate her feelings and build a connection that was meaningful. 

Listening skills can be learned, but at the same time you have to unlearn certain ineffective communication and conversational habits. Make an appointment today and I can help you and your partner learn new ways of talking and listening to each other. 

It Takes Two to Tango

Relationships between two people involve an interplay of reactions and conversational interchanges. You and your partner affect each others' responses. Be honest, and admit that you can often be more effective in these exchanges. This doesn't necessarily mean that you were wrong, only that a different choice of words or actions could have gotten you closer to your goal. Did you really handle that last fight with your partner in the most constructive way? Would you have rated yourself a 10/10 for poise, content and self-control? Or could your words have been chosen with more diplomacy and kindness?

Knowing that your partner and you respond to each other, like in a dance, could you have been more thoughtful in how your words might affect the other? Or can you consider how another choice of words or gestures could have made the outcome better? If you want to offer up a thoughtful apology, it's best to consider how you could have handled a situation more considerately. Oftentimes, offering up an honest awareness of your flawed approach can spur on such awareness in your partner also, and make them more willing to honestly assess their approach. 

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