How to Apologize

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Yesterday I apologized to my 8-year-old son, Aaron. I got angry, and spoke to him with a tone that was mean and harsh. Immediately after, I knew that my reaction had been unkind and ungracious, and had hurt his feelings. So I apologized to him.

I’ve had many, many times of needing to apologize. With my friends, with my kids, with my husband. And I can’t even count the number of times on any given day that we are coaching our kids to apologize to each other and reconcile conflict. I’m no expert, but I do have the experience of what a good apology can do to repair and strengthen a relationship. In contrast, I have seen how an incomplete or non-apology damages relationship and allows pain to fester.

We all mess up and hurt people. Conflict is inevitable. And when conflict happens, we have the power to choose whether we’ll allow the damaged relationship to stay that way, or to work toward reconciliation. In my marriage, I’ve experienced the messiness of conflict, but also the deep joy and intimacy that follows a good apology.

When we apologize, we open dialogue with the person we hurt, take responsibility and acknowledge the pain we caused, and ultimately, seize an opportunity to do better next time.

A good apology has two key elements:

  1. It shows remorse over your actions.
  2. It acknowledges the pain your actions caused to someone else.

It is not easy to apologize well. It is simple, but not easy. An effective apology takes courage and humility. Oftentimes, we react to our own wrongdoings with shame, fear, or defensiveness, all of which don’t aid us in good apologies. We’ve all probably heard (and perhaps spoken) non-apologies.

Here are some examples of non-apology apologies:

“I’m sorry that you feel that way.” A non-apology that doesn’t admit that there was any wrongdoing.

“I’m sorry that your feelings were hurt, but…” The non-apology that shifts blame to someone else, or essentially says that the other person is being overly sensitive. Adding a “but” to any apology basically ends up being a non-apology.

“Sorry to whoever feels offended.” The generic, vague non-apology that doesn’t require taking responsibility.

“Sorry.” Followed by a “Let’s just move on.” Another vague non-apology that doesn’t take responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, and doesn’t do any repair.

The Pre-Step: Listen

To truly apologize well, one must first seek to understand how the other person was hurt or affected by the wrongdoing. That means listening with empathy. Before apologizing, it may be helpful to clarify what the wrongdoing was. If I hurt someone, I usually first ask the person something like, “How did I hurt you?” or “What did I do that caused you pain?” Then I shut up and listen. Without protests or justifications. Only after getting to a place of understanding the pain I caused, I can then truly apologize. Listening also creates a pathway for the person to receive my apology, because they know that I am clear about my wrongdoing.

Now let’s look at the steps of a good apology. A good apology will communicate three things: remorse, responsibility, and remedy.

How to Apologize

Step 1: Express Remorse

An apology needs to express remorse (or regret) for the actions that caused pain. Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” These words are simple, yet powerful. There is no apology if these words aren’t said.

In my apology to my son, I said this, “I am sorry that I snapped at you yesterday. I reacted too harshly, and wasn’t gracious.”

Step 2: Admit Responsibility

Take responsibility for your actions, and the effects they had on the other person. This step involves empathizing with the other person (no matter what your original intentions were), and demonstrating that you understand how you made the person feel.

“I know that I hurt your feelings, and made you feel bad. That was wrong.”

Step 3: Remedy the Situation

When you remedy the situation, you repair what has been damaged and make it right. You also commit to do better next time.

My words caused Aaron to feel bad. To repair that, I told him, “You are important to me, and I love you. I want to treat you with kindness. I’ll work on speaking more gently to you. And if I speak to you harshly in the future, you can call me out on that.”

Remedying the situation leads you to consider how to treat the person better, and not cause them the same pain as before. Remedying the situation means assuring the person that you will change your behavior, and following through on it. This is a commitment on your end to rebuild trust through doing better in the future.

A few other thoughts on apologies…

  • If apologies don’t come naturally, prepare your apology. It may help to write out what you want to say. You can also role-play your apology with a trusted friend.
  • An apology needs to acknowledge the truth of the other person’s feelings. It’s not a matter of who is “right” or “wrong,” since we all experience and interpret situations subjectively.
  • Express your intentions, but don’t excuse your behaviors. This takes nuance and thoughtfulness. You may express that your intention wasn’t to harm the other person, and that you value and care about him or her. But keep the focus on the wrongdoing, and take responsibility for it.
  • You can ask for forgiveness, but you can’t force it. Our family considers forgiveness to be an crucial part of repairing damaged relationships. But forgiveness isn’t always instantaneous, and is sometimes a process that may take time. We encourage our kids to ask for forgiveness as part of the Remedy the Situation in Step 3. The kid being asked for forgiveness is allowed to take time and space, and forgive the wrongdoing when they are ready.

If we’re willing to do the hard work of apologizing well, we’ll reap the benefit of deepening relationships with the people in our lives.

 

Happy 2nd Birthday, Aria

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I write letters to my children on their birthdays. Here is last year’s letter to Aria.

Happy birthday, Aria!

Can you really be two already? Apparently so. You add such a wonderful dose of light into the world, it’s hard for me to remember what life pre-you was like.

You have a beautiful spirit that is curious, funny, thoughtful, and sweet. When you meet someone new, your first instinct is to befriend and charm. You have a wonderful imagination, playing pretend and making up your own language. When you get excited, you squeal with delight.

We have learned to always keep an eye on you because you get into everything. Once you opened the fridge, and dumped a whole container of bread dough all over yourself. Last week you figured out how to climb out of your crib. You certainly keep us on our toes.

You love listening to the “Mo-a-a” (Moana) soundtrack, playing with water, using the remote control to talk on the phone with your grandparents, singing the alphabet song, eating edamame, drawing on things you’re not supposed to, telling us that you want to “guh-buh” (buckle) yourself into your car seat, asking to be picked “uh-poo” (up), and giving really great hugs and kisses.

I love seeing your identity take shape, and hope this year brings so much joy for you.To watch you grow and learn and live is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. You are deeply loved.

With all my heart,

Mommy

 

10 Things I Learned in February 2017

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It’s been a while since I wrote a “10 Things I Learned” post. Life has been full lately, so I’ve had less capacity to blog. But here we are!

This habit of writing down what I’m learning helps me pay attention to life, myself, and God’s presence. It’s my way of reflecting and celebrating. “10 Things I Learned” are some of my favorite posts to write. I love the process of looking back, and seeing the deeper lessons that I might otherwise miss.

In no particular order, here are 10 things I learned this month.

1. I love baking bread with wild yeast.

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For several months I’ve been maintaining a sourdough starter, and using it to make all sorts of bread. This is the method used before packaged yeast was created. The rhythm of feeding the starter (which I named “Nasty Woman”) with new flour and water to keep the yeast active has become a part of my daily routine. And now our kitchen is often filled with the scent of rising dough, freshly baked sourdough, and crusty baguettes.

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2. If you’re ready to do a deep dive into self-awareness, explore your Enneagram type.

The Enneagram is a tool that helps you identify your personality within a spectrum of 9 different personality types. I began learning about the Enneagram several years ago, and it has given me so much insight into who I am, what motivates me, and how to continue growing.

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I’ve read several books on the Enneagram, and recommend The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Riso and Russ Hudson, and The Road Back to You by Ian Cron and Susanne Stabile (they also have a podcast!). For those who are curious, I am a type 1 (the Reformer) with a 2 wing.

3. Spotify is amazing.

We just started using Spotify, and YOU GUYS, GAME CHANGER. But you all probably know this because I’m pretty late to the discovery. I love that I have access to so many digital albums and songs, without the hassle of having to actually own and store them. I thank Spotify for all the hours I get to listen to Hamilton on loop and create Disney playlists for my kids.

4. My favorite weekly ritual is our family’s “Golden Fork and Spoon Night.”

Once a week, one person in our family gets to use the special golden utensils at dinner. During that meal, the rest of the family shares all the things we appreciate and love about that one person. It is a way to celebrate and affirm each person, and create space for gratitude as a family.

5. I get excited about packing.

This makes sense given I am an Enneagram 1 as mentioned above. Creating lists and order are comforting. But now I love packing even more since discovering eBags.

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I received the eBags Weekender Convertible, an awesome carry-on travel backpack, as a Christmas present. Later I purchased the packing cubes and toiletry case. I’m a huge fan of the well-designed eBags products.

6. I am rich in friendship.

Several recent occasions reminded me of this. Steve and I took a trip to Los Angeles, where we had the pleasure of reconnecting with many friends from our 15+ years of living there. We’ve also hosted a few gatherings in our home in the last few weeks. These experiences were brief snapshots of the many lifelong friendships I’ve been given, and I am so grateful.

7. Parenting three kids makes my life a lot more fun.

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I love how much fun my kids add to my life. Because of them, my days involve more play, imagination, and humor.

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8. Lagunitas Brewing Company is churning out some of my current favorite beers.

Try their IPA, Undercover Investigation Shut Down, or Brown Sugga.’ Mmmm.

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9. Storytelling is a powerful way to increase empathy and compassion.

Have you watched a movie or read a story that invites you into a human experience other than your own? If you allow yourself to enter into the story without judgement, you begin to understand the perspective of other people. I watched a recent episode of This Is Us (so good!) that showed a major character experiencing an anxiety attack. It was heartbreaking, and deepened my compassion for people who deal with this level of anxiety.

Our world is filled with an ocean of human experience. Let’s all resist the temptation to remain in our own bubbles, and listen to stories of people who are different than us. Listen to the people with whom you cross paths. Read books from authors who have a different background than you. Watch films that shine light on topics that may make you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ll grow.

10. If I could, I’d wear a flannel shirt and jogger pants all the livelong day.

Steve Jobs was known for wearing black turtleneck and jeans every day. Maybe my flannel shirt and jogger pants uniform will increase my visionary leadership and innovation. Or maybe it’ll decrease all my productivity altogether.