“I said I was sorry”


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To disarm anger, try empathy instead of apology

If you think back to the last time you felt hurt or wronged, confronted the person in question, and received an “I’m sorry” in response, how satisfied did you feel? Assuming the person was sincere and did not try to explain or justify the behavior, did you consider the apology sufficient to make up for the offense?

Most likely it did not, because anyone can wrong another person and say “I’m sorry” without having any real understanding of how their actions were hurtful, why they mattered, or how others felt about them.

The act of apologizing does not actually convey understanding or empathy. So why bother?

Since social convention has trained most people to expect an apology when they perceive hurtful behavior, it amounts to a minimum requirement for earning forgiveness. The aggrieved expect offenders to check that box, sincerely, without explaining (“I didn’t mean to___”), minimizing (“It was only ___”), or questioning (“I’m sorry if ___”). Again, this is only the beginning. To earn true forgiveness and begin to repair relationships, much more is required: a compassionate, disarming response.

Acknowledging truth in complaints

When someone confronts you with a complaint (“You did ___!”), the first thing they want to hear in response isn’t a generic apology, but an acknowledgment (“You’re right, ___ happened”). That gesture, or some version of it, acknowledges the aggrieved person’s truth, and is the first step in demonstrating understanding.

Some truths are easier to acknowledge than others. Imagine if I ran over your foot with my bicycle, and you shouted, “You’re an inattentive idiot and a menace on wheels!” Which truths could I acknowledge? I couldn’t say, “You’re right, I’m stupid and should be banned from the road.” That would be insincere. I could say, “It’s true, I ran over your foot, which struck you as really careless.” This amounts to admitting the obvious, based on objective events and your words. If I have a different perspective (my own truth)—for instance, that you were somehow at fault—I must delay mentioning it until you are calm and thinking rationally.

Cognitive empathy

After acknowledging your truth, my next step is to attempt to demonstrate cognitive empathy—the understanding of why my actions mattered to you—using your words and the context. For instance, I might add, “You expect cyclists to look out for pedestrians and avoid collisions. You also expect walking to be a safe activity, and you definitely don’t want to deal with the pain and aggravation of an injury.” This demonstrates comprehension of your beliefs and expectations, and keeps me away from statements like, “I understand you’re upset” which will further offend and agitate you.

Emotional empathy

At this point, I’m making good progress toward defusing your outrage, but to melt away that last 10-20% of your grievance, I need to address the emotional impact of my actions. This part is straightforward, because anger is clearly the dominant emotion. I was wise not to lead with emotional empathy, saying, “Wow, I can see you’re really angry” right after flattening your foot. That would elicit some choice words from you. However, because I acknowledged your truth and demonstrated cognitive empathy, I have now earned the right to say, “For all those reasons, I can see how you would be really angry with me right now, and I’m sorry. Did I miss anything?”

That last question (“Did I miss anything?”) also demonstrates humility, because it acknowledges that I could have been wrong or missed a key point, and invites you to correct me, which shows generosity and concern.

Let’s look at the entire compassionate, disarming response and compare it with an apology…

(The context) I run over your foot with my bicycle.

(Your words) “You’re an inattentive idiot and a menace on wheels!

Apology graphicIf it’s your foot, which response would you prefer? Besides, the compassionate response eventually works in an apology and checks the box for social convention. At that point, I’m making much more of a difference with empathy than I am with contrition. I don’t expect your anger to be completely gone. Regardless of fault, getting hit by a bike is a major irritant, and I would be wise to use the compassionate, disarming approach before trying to defend my actions or blame you. This improves the chances that we can talk rationally about what happened and diminishes the odds of you wanting to pummel or sue me.

by Jason Sackett, LCSW, PCC
Professional Staff at CWFL