Monday, February 24, 2014

How to Apologize with Empathy

Have you ever had one of those moments where you just wanted to scream? (Of course, you have.) I had one of those moments last week. Laurel was having a rough day (I'm pretty sure a tooth is on its way) and Cadence was also demanding a lot of attention. I felt myself reaching a breaking point in the afternoon, so I tried to escape to the bathroom for a few moments of deep breathing. Unfortunately, Cadence was not on board with my plan and insisted on following me. I tried begging her for a few minutes of alone time as I raced up the stairs, but she was right on my heels. I felt frustrated and suddenly, in an odd, out-of-body kind of moment, a primal yell was coming out of my throat.

For a brief moment, I felt relieved. The relief was quickly replaced by remorse, however, when I saw the look of shock on Cadence's face, which then gave way to sobbing. I wasn't yelling at her, I wasn't even facing her when it happened, but she was clearly terrified. Sigh. Trying to find the good in the situation, I mentally reminded myself that here was an excellent opportunity to practice apologizing with empathy.

I feel strongly about teaching life skills, either in formal trainings or at home with the kiddos, by modelling them. Lately, I've been modeling the art of apology. A lot. In doing so, I've been thinking about what is important, when making an apology.

Normally, I feel that there are many right ways to do something - and, really, who am I to say what's right and what's wrong? In this case, though, I think there really is a wrong way to apologize. And I'm betting that you've been the recipient of the wrong kind of apology, yes? One where the other person didn't really seem sorry (a glib, "Sorry 'bout that"), or was more concerned about explaining their actions ("Sorry, but you need to understand..."), or seemed more interested in alleviating their own guilt ("Phew! Glad that's off my chest...").

The purpose of apologizing is to acknowledge wrong-doing or hurt and to begin the process of repairing a relationship. Looking at apologies through the lens of empathy and thinking about the needs of the person receiving the apology helps to do it right. I believe the right kind of apology has three parts:

1. I'm Sorry (no ifs, ands, or buts). The apology recipient needs to know that you are actually sorry about what you did, what happened, or at least the impact it had. Period. This is not the time for justifying or explaining the situation from your own perspective (yet).

2. Acknowledgement of the impact. Most likely, you did not intend to cause hurt or damage, but intentions do not always predict impact. The apology recipient needs to know that you understand how s/he feels, which you can do by reflecting feelings or by asking questions, e.g., "I can see that you're upset about (what I did). Can you tell me about how it affected you?"

3. How can I make amends? Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood has a great episode about apologizing. The jingle for the show is, "Saying I'm sorry is the first step. Now, how can I help?" The apology recipient needs to know that you are interested in repairing damage and/or taking steps to see that it doesn't happen again. You can share what you would like to do to make amends or ask what would be helpful. At this point, after you have said you are sorry and acknowledged the impact, it would be appropriate to share your perspective and what you intended, as well as to ask for input on how you could avoid causing hurt in the future.

Continuing my example from the other day, I first sat with Cadence until she stopped crying and was ready to hear me. I told her I was sorry and that I realized that I had really scared her when I yelled. I asked her to tell me what it was like, which she did, tearfully. I asked her what I could do to help her feel better and she asked for some of our special cuddling time (done!). I let her know that I had been feeling frustrated and asked her what I should do the next time I was upset and needed some alone time. She told me that the next time I was frustrated, she would give me a big hug. Not quite what I had in mind, but you can't say no to that!

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Image credit: Sorry - Typography by Jace Kennedy, cc license

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