“Why should we apologize? Everyone gets offended so easily these days.”
To Help or Hurt, We Choose
Each of us decides how we want to move through the world.
What are our values? Do we want to be the person with the offensive bumper sticker personality, insulting everyone that we come in contact with?
Photo credit http://www.nealfowler.co.uk/
I want to move through this short life with love. One of my covenants includes to respect and value the dignity of all human beings.
The need to sacrifice for the greater good is indisputable. It’s why we stop at traffic signals and stop signs. It’s why we use turn signals. And wait in line at the grocery store. And get vaccinated.
Difference Creates Opportunities, Not Threats
In an increasingly diverse society, there is beauty and opportunity in difference. Different cultures have their own wisdom and are a critically important part of the whole. Though traditionally they are not widely recognized as such. As a systems thinker, I know that when you optimize the part, you sub-optimize the whole. At every level we have optimized parts, and sub-optimized whole.
Some wisdom can only be found in diversity. When people with diverse identities agree, universal principles emerge. Further reading about universal values and respecting others here.
And, given the complexities we face, we cannot to solve our biggest problems without incorporating different viewpoints. Another piece about that here.
The path to find areas of agreement is often fraught with conflict and hurt feelings, however.
Our Culture Has Done a Ton of Harm
In the US, the dominant mode of deciding and acting remains traditionally anglo-saxon. To be brief, this tradition was incredibly destructive. It silenced many voices and destroyed so many lives over the centuries. Those who speak out continue to be punished. As a result, there is a massive backlog of legitimate claims of harm.
And very little thought is given to apologizing.
Over the last several years I realized that I too have a bias toward people who are like me. Everything in my environment, all my socialization taught me this. Every man-made institution demonstrates whose voices are important, whose lives are valued, and whose are not. It was built into my operating system. Our media, built environments, schools, and churches have taught most of us these things.
As a result, we do harm. Or more accurately, we’ve done a lot of harm, and we continue to do harm. Some big and some small. Individual harms, organizational harm, structural harm, cultural harm.
How do we tackle this Augean stable filled with centuries of manure? One shovelful at a time. (Also reparations, the equivalent of rerouting a river is another important topic.)
We can begin by building the muscles needed to maintain our relationships at the individual level. One muscle is knowing how to apologize, to immediately treat the harm. It’s like putting a stitch or two into a wound, and giving it a band-aid. The hurt isn’t instantly cured, but over time, it will heal.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
Inevitably, we are going to hear “Hey! What you said or did disrespects me, devalues me as a person, as a human being.” I can tell you from experience, it’s awkward.
Sometimes my amygdala floods, triggering a fight or flight response. A bodily response that causes me to feel hijacked emotionally, and physiologically limits my ability to think.
I think “I didn’t mean to …” and beneath that I might be feeling “but I’m a good person.” I feel deeply misunderstood and panicky.
For me it helps to have this model to follow.
5 Elements of a Good Apology
Preparation: Breathe. We will have time to work through our emotions later. When someone says ‘ouch’, it is neither the time nor the place. Tend to the damage you did by focusing on the other person first.
- Describe your behavior, words, or action that caused the harm. Use “I/my” language when possible. Own it. Take responsibility.
- Acknowledge how your behavior, words, or action hurt the other person or party.
- Say you’re sorry to the person you harmed. Mean it.
- Breathe. Stop talking. Remember their healing is the goal for now. Your goal is not to be a mac truck in need of new brakes.
- Think about how to not to do it again. Commit to a plan.
That’s it. Well, done. It is a learning process for all of us.
With practice, we learn and grow. We sharpen our awareness about cause and effects, about our impact on others, and become more resilient to challenges to our world view. After all, we live in a world of interdependence, where my actions affect others, and others’ affect me.
And that Augean stable? It’s still there. With our apology, we may put one band-aid on a person that has suffered 1000 wounds. Perhaps mortal wounds. So do not expect appreciation or forgiveness.
Nonetheless, a good apology offers a glimmer of caring. We can be that light, and with practice we may become practiced in healing our relationships.
I need this as much as anyone does.
On a personal note, as a Taurus, my tendency is to boldly go, well, everywhere. Because my stance to challenge has been directness, I have so many experiences of stepping on toes. I am still learning and putting into practice these values and practice.
And I hope I’m making fewer mistakes than I used to.
A good apology is one that engenders humility. My comfort is no longer the primary goal. The deeper peace and understanding that quality apologies can create are higher goals that will ultimately help us create a world worthy of us, and generations to come.
One day at a time.