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The Art of the Genuine Apology

A key theme in the aftermath of the “Heaven and Hell” documentary has been the importance of acknowledgement; particularly from people who have harmed us. There are so many stories from child survivors of abuse at Centrepoint, about adults, often parents, not being able to acknowledge the impact that their actions and decision making has had on the following generation. So many stories of children feeling they have had to carry the shame, of adults being angry and defensive when an acknowledgment and apology has been sought. And it is all understandable, however painful, right? For starters, defensiveness in the face of accusation (or feeling accused) is the natural first response of all humans. And then there is the guilt, and the equally natural response to avoid discomfort. If anything, acknowledgement of a harm that we have either advertently, or inadvertently had a part in, goes against everything that feels ‘natural’ to us. Yet, showing up and counteracting these intrinsic tendencies is exactly what is needed for genuine healing of relationships to take place.

Acknowledgment is closely linked, possibly inextricably, to apology. Tricky things, apologies.

Made genuinely, they can be hugely healing, both for the offender and the offended. But they are often done badly, and can have significantly negative impacts on relationships. I don’t think I’m a very good apologiser. I either apologise too much, for things I don’t need to, or I do the classic “I’m sorry you’re feeling…” which isn’t an apology at all, apparently. I’m still stuck on that one, as I am usually genuinely sorry that the person feels that way, but I don’t always feel responsible for those feelings occurring. So I’m still a bit confused about it all.

Rather than blather on about my own confusion, I thought I’d share the views of people who are a lot more sorted out than I am in this field; and the material for this blog comes from Brenē Brown’s interview with Harriet Lerner

While I’m at it, I’ll mention Harriet's book “Why won’t you apologize? Healing big betrayals and everyday hurts” - perhaps a must read for all people connected, however tenuously, to the harm caused by the Centrepoint experience.

While this material focuses on the apology itself, inherent within the material is the power and importance of acknowledgment. I’ve found this material useful both for my own personal interactions and relationships, but also to help me understand and process the instances of lack of acknowledgement of the past within my own family.

The first thing that is discussed is the idea that the words “I’m sorry” are the most important words in the English language, according to Lerner. The second thing is that apologising is very difficult. Makes me feel slightly better about not being that good at it!

Lerner’s justification for the importance of the apology is that the need to give and receive apologies will always be with us. We are imperfect beings, causing (mostly) inadvertent pain to others fairly regularly. Done right, an apology is very healing, but done wrong, very destructive. Lerner asserts that being able to say sorry is central to family, marriage, leadership, and parenting.

She suggests that there are three gifts of a heartfelt apology:

Firstly, it is a gift to the person that we hurt (the offended). The offended person feels soothed, anger/bitterness can be released - they can let it go, the obsessive thinking, "How can they not see what they did?" The offended person feels safe and comfortable in the relationship again. Emotional safety is provided, and they feel validated; their feelings have affected the offender, who cares about them and wants things to be right. A really important aspect of this is that it validates the offended person’s sense of reality; it gives them the message that their feelings make sense, that it is understandable that they feel injured, and it acknowledges that the offender screwed up.

But, if the apology is not heartfelt, then none of those things happen.

Second, it is a gift to the offender. This isn’t initially apparent as the act of apologising puts the offender into a very vulnerable position. They don't know, and have no control over how the apology will be received. It might unleash more anger and criticism. It might be used against them; bringing up self-esteem issues. They will have to admit that they are not perfect.

Lerner argues that an apology is a huge gift to the self as the offender, because in the long term that person grows in maturity and self worth; the basis of self-esteem. Although the offender may feel vulnerable and small, or worried about losing respect, in fact the opposite happens. The relationship grows and the self grows, and the offender is more respected. Even if this doesn’t happen, by making a heartfelt apology, the offender can stand on firmer ground, with their own self-respect intact.

Third, it is a gift to the relationship. All relationships, particularly long term / enduring ones, can’t function if we don’t feel we can repair hurt when we inevitably mess up.

The impact of the bad apology (i.e. one that is not heartfelt, genuine, and comes from a self- defensive place) is huge, according to Lerner. At best, the relationship will suffer. At worst, it may cease, with the offender being cut off. A bad apology that deepens the rift is worse than no apology at all.

I’ve listed Lerner’s 9 Essential Ingredients to a heartfelt apology below. It is an extensive list, somewhat overwhelming in its breadth. But I figure that if I take on even a few of these ingredients, or work on them one by one, I’ll be improving my relationships, and feel like less of a wuss at the same time.

  1. A true apology does not include the word ‘but’. Whatever follows the ‘but’ will be a criticism, excuse, justification, and nothing after it matters.

  2. A true apology focuses on our actions, NOT the other person's response. Instead of saying “I'm sorry if you felt hurt by me saying... “, we need to say, “I’m sorry for saying…” The first apology has no accountability.

  3. A good apology includes an offer of restoration or restitution that fits the situation. This ensures that the offender’s actions reflect a deep understanding of the person’s hurt.

  4. Over apologising is not necessary. Keep it connected to the offence. It seems self-effacing, but it is actually attention seeking and can be irritating.

  5. A true apology doesn't get caught up in who was more to blame for the problem / who started it. The offender apologises for their part (regardless of the size of that part, even if smaller) even if the other person can't see their own part. This is all about learning to be our best self, and is good for the old ego!

  6. A true apology means that the offender does their best to avoid a repeat performance. A change in behaviour is needed. This is particularly challenging if the problem is part of the offender’s behaviour / personality. It is hard to modify behaviour, but an apology has no meaning if you're repeating what you're apologising for.

  7. A true apology should not serve to silence another person, or be used to get out of, or shut a conversation down. If it’s not possible for the offender to hear and/or discuss the issue in that moment, they could say, “I really want to hear your issue, but I'm feeling overwhelmed by what you're saying. Can we talk about it again later? Making sure, of course to actually do so (otherwise it may damage the relationship).

  8. A true apology should not have the focus of making the offender feel better, if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. All apologies are not welcome. For example, pursuing the offended party to apologise to them when they don’t want to hear it probably won’t improve the relationship.

  9. A true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive. It is unconditional. It is not set up as wanting an apology back. It is natural to want forgiveness, but the apology is not a bargaining tool. Resolving a conflict is a process. The offended party may need to sit with it to see if there is any leftover anger/pain. An apology is also not an end to a conversation. It de-intensifies the situation to allow room for further conversations.

So! There is a bit in all that, isn’t there? Even if we get some of that down, there’s more! Harriet Lerner talks about the great apology challenge - defensiveness. She states that we are all neurologically wired for the "mischief of defensiveness"- it is normal. We want to protect the most favourable image of ourselves. We don't want to see ourselves outside of what we like about ourselves. The old “Johari Window”

Our challenge is to find the motivation for, as well as a strategy to increase our awareness of defensiveness, and how to get beyond it. I like Harriet’s quote "If we would only listen with the same passion that we feel about needing to be heard.” We are so much more interested in enhancing our talking skills than our listening skills.

Defensiveness is the arch enemy of listening, connection, and intimacy, and a heartfelt apology is impossible in this space. Listening is easy when we like what is being said to or about us. But we tend to automatically listen for what we do not agree with. Lerner suggests that the way to catch ourselves being defensive is to notice when we are listening to correct the exaggerations and/or inaccuracies of what is being said, i.e. when we are listening for what we don't agree with. That's when we're being defensive. We need to learn how to listen for the essence of what is being said. Lerner says that "No apology has meaning if we haven't listened carefully to the hurt party's anger and pain.” I think this is the key message for the adults in our lives who didn’t see, and/or didn’t act to protect us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not asking my adults to feel personally guilty. I’m asking that they acknowledge the hurt caused to me, and to apologise, genuinely, for their part in that occurring. Even if they didn’t know (which is a stretch if they ever visited the place), they definitely had misgivings (or should have). I get that this is really hard, but I think our relationship makes it necessary.

As we can develop the skills to dismantle our defensive listening, we can also structure a response to the offended party to create the space we need to listen whole heartedly. We can acknowledge the importance of what the offended party is trying to say, and state our desire to listen. We can acknowledge that they are hurting. However, it is also completely appropriate to ask for what we need in order to listen, such as setting a time and place, taking one thing at a time, and being upfront if it is too much and we know we are sliding into defensiveness. Better to set up something that will enable us to listen wholeheartedly, than to listen to it all from a defensive position. Ideally, we are in a place where we can withstand the blast from the injured party, then try to unpack it.

Harriet Lerner’s 10 elements of wholehearted non defensive listening:

  1. Recognise our defensiveness. It happens immediately and automatically, but recognising it can give us distance from the defensiveness.

  2. Breathe. Defensiveness starts in the body, making us tense and guarded. Breathing helps to calm ourselves. We can't listen when our nervous system is overheated.

  3. Listen ONLY to understand - (don't interrupt, argue, correct facts etc). Even if we have valid points to make, we are listening for the essence, and points concerning accuracy, etc, can be made at a later time, when they might be heard. The trick is to look for what we understand and agree with, NOT spending the listening time making our own arguments.

  4. Ask questions about whatever we don't understand. Criticisms are often vague, and it is useful to ask for a specific example of when the injured party felt (whatever the issue is). But, this needs to be said in such a way as to explain that this will help us better understand. Tone is essential here. We need to be genuinely curious, not saying “Tell me what I did!”

  5. Find something that we can agree with. Even if we only agree with a small part of what is being said, focus on that and apologise for that piece first. If there is nothing we agree with, then appreciate it being brought up and that we will think about it.

  6. Let the offended party know that they have been heard, and that we will continue to think about the conversation. Continuing to think is important as it validates the importance of what has been raised. It also encourages lines of communication to be open, letting them know that it is ok if more comes up. Big issues are often not solved in one conversation. It is important for the injured party to know that a) we’ll be thinking about it, b) that they can raise more issues, and c) that we will check in with them to see how they are feeling about the issue. This last point is very important, and REALLY validates and heals the relationship.

  7. Thank the offended party for sharing their feelings and express gratitude! Acknowledge that it was hard to listen, but thank them for their courage. Be honest about the fact that it may take us a while to really take in what they are saying but thank them for valuing the relationship enough to have the conversation.

  8. Define our differences. This is very important. It is usually best not done at the time, but to come back to it. It doesn't mean we are trying to get them to change their mind, but it is important to acknowledge anything specific that we see differently. Ie the apology doesn’t automatically mean that we see things in the same way. This isn’t confrontation, but it is allowing for difference within the relationship. Intimacy involves acknowledging difference and respect.

Reasons why an apology is not forthcoming:

The most common reason is that we ourselves have had a part in the issue, usually when we blame the blamer, or shame the shamer. This makes it unlikely that we will get an apology. The offender will just wrap themselves more tightly in their blanket of defensiveness. If we want an apology, Harriet Lerner suggests 5 ways to state our case in a way that people can hear us.

  1. The power of shorter - NOT over talking / sending the angry email reply etc. People will take in very little info when they don't want to hear what we are saying, even if we’re avoiding shame/blame.

  2. Move from blaming to assertive claiming. It never works and won't help to blame. It just isn't useful. Assertive claiming is when we define ourselves; what we think/feel/believe while also respecting that others may see it differently.

  3. Focus on how we feel, not on the other person's crime sheet.

  4. Do not ask for or demand an apology - people don't want to be told how to think or feel. It can make an adult feel like a child. If they do apologise, because we’ve insisted, it isn't meaningful.

  5. Stand on the highest ground regardless of whether we are listened to or not. This is about being our best self. If we are sharing a hurt about a difficult issue with someone who is likely to be defensive, we do it for ourselves, because we need to hear our own voice speaking what we believe. If we need a response, we’re not ready to have the conversation. We can behave in a way that will increase our sense of integrity and self-regard.

This last one is tricky for me in this context, I think. Because I am actually wanting a response; to be acknowledged that my hurt, anger and sense of betrayal is valid. Mmm, I need to think about this some more.

Lerner suggest a useful guiding question to remind ourselves; “How do I want the person to feel when they hear / read of my hurt? If I shame that person, they will feel as I have done.”

Reflecting on this one, I think I received a defensive response from one of the adults in my life because I did do a bit of shaming. It wasn’t deliberate, and I only recognised it when I reviewed things afterwards, but it was there.

While we may not, sadly, ever get the acknowledgement we need and deserve from the adults in our lives when we were children, I hope that the suggestions Harriet Lerner makes helps us better understand the processes involved in it. Personally, I hope I can become better at the art of the genuine apology; of being able to genuinely acknowledge another’s suffering, hurt, and pain, and better at stating things that have caused me hurt. I hope that in this process I can become my best self.



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