In our efforts to reassure someone that their transgression was not overly severe, we can inadvertently trivialize the effort it took for them to apologize to us.
It is not uncommon for our natural instinct to preserve harmony and avoid discomfort to emerge when someone tries to apologize. We become uncomfortable that the other person is regretting what they have done, and seek to assure them that we are not upset. As I wrote about a few weeks ago in Replacing sorry, we sometimes do this even when the other person is not apologizing. They say the words, “I’m sorry” and we immediately feel compelled to tell them that it’s fine.
This scenario plays out so frequently that it deserves more thought and introspection. I think that part of our instinct comes from a good and natural desire to not let another person take full blame when they are not completely guilty. In his wonderful book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells a story of using that instinct to his benefit, and suggests that we can similar.
I was in for it. I knew it. So I didn’t wait until the policeman started talking. I beat him to it. I said: “Officer, you’ve caught me red-handed. I’m guilty. I have no alibis, no excuses.“
That policeman, being human, wanted a feeling of importance; so when I began to condemn myself, the only way he could nourish his self-esteem was to take the magnanimous attitude of showing mercy.
Instead of breaking lances with him, I admitted that he was absolutely right and I was absolutely wrong; I admitted it quickly, openly, and with enthusiasm. The affair terminated graciously in my taking his side and his taking my side.
When we are right, let’s try to win people gently and tactfully to our way of thinking, and when we are wrong—and that will be surprisingly often, if we are honest with ourselves—let’s admit our mistakes quickly and with enthusiasm. Not only will that technique produce astonishing results; but, believe it or not, it is a lot more fun, under the circumstances, than trying to defend oneself.
Another reason for our aversion to apologies is that we want to feel merciful. There are selfish and selfless tendencies at work here. We feel a noble desire to uplift the other person. We see them suffering, and want to do our part to relieve that suffering. However, too often, we are more concerned with our feelings than theirs. If someone apologizes to us, that puts us in a position of judgment and we want to feel the satisfaction that comes from extending mercy and we assume the way to achieve this is to say that the apology was unnecessary.
Often, we dismiss the need for an apology because we are not comfortable with sitting in the emotions that it stirs up. We do not feel willing to take ownership for our own mistakes and truly apologize for them, and so we have a hard time hearing someone else do it. Guilt is an uncomfortable companion.
However, this is not always the case. I had an experience this week that made me think about this more deeply. I joined my brother in Mexico for his business trip, and we were able to stay in a condo that his company owns. He was bringing tacos so we could eat lunch together. A few minutes before he was supposed to arrive, I got back from a walk and took a quick shower. Almost as soon as I got in, I heard him come in, and I regretted my decision. When I got out of the shower, I told him, “I want to apologize, and I don’t want you to trivialize it.” He was a little taken aback, and said he was ready to hear it. I told him that I was sorry I had taken a shower and cut it so close. I felt like he had made an effort to come back so we could enjoy lunch together, and I had thoughtlessly wasted some of that time. He replied that he appreciated my apology, and also felt that we had plenty of time, and was not bothered that some of it was spent with me in the shower.
That felt like a pretty perfect interaction.
A true apology is a major moment of vulnerability. When someone is willing to be that honest with themselves to recognize that they feel regret for their actions, and then are willing to put themselves out and tell someone, we should honor that. Respecting their vulnerability doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them. But if our response is dismissive, we trivialize an act that was anything but trivial. We also miss out on an opportunity for a real, human connection.
I hope that I can be better at admitting when I am wrong and truly apologizing, regardless of how it might be received. I also hope that I, and all of us, can be more gentle when someone is willing to be honest and vulnerable enough to apologize. If we can do that, we will encourage that behavior, and make it easier to be vulnerable in the future. And that is a good thing.