How to Make a Proper Apology

by Tara Fass

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As Paula Spencer Scott, Caring.com senior editor wrote in, "7 Ways to Handle a Hothead -- Without Blowing Your Top" steadying yourself with people who feel slighted is challenging.  In my line of work this would be hurt and angry co-parents and their children. 

"Unfortunately, none of the natural reactions that an angry person inspires -- defensiveness, fear, or getting mad yourself -- tend to be productive," says Scott.

That said here are 3 out of Scott's 7 tactics for demonstrating 'grace under fire'  while advancing the children’s cause, the one good thing left after everything else has fallen away in your relationship.  The bonus is there’s a way of doing this that doesn't leave you feeling like a door mat.  Attitude alert:  Your own agenda might feel relegated to 'second class citizen' for awhile as you elevate your 'first class' parenting skills. 

1. Let the angry person know you understand that he or she is upset.

What this sounds like for the custody crowd is: "I understand you're really angry that I was late for your basketball game because work ran late." What’s unacceptable though is, "You seem really mad that no one was there to pick you up when practice was over," unless of course there was a good-enough back up plan in place."  “I missed the text but couldn't call anyway because I was out of cell phone range," also isn’t a great response.

Taking more rather than less personal responsibility is better as in, "I need to work on time management so this doesn't happen again."  "You're mad that I forgot you -- is that it?" "Please don’t think you’re unimportant to me," is marginally better but without change adds up to so much lip service.

"The worst thing you can say, according to Scott is, "I don't understand why you feel that way."  You have to understand or accept as you listen and hear the concern of another, Dr. Isaac Berman, Ph.D.says.  This is not the same thing as agreement.  It is the first layer in peeling back the onion of the paradox you're in at the core of your conflict.  Your problem is the other person's discomfort not whether you agree to their right to it.  There is by definition a larger meaning missing here, that's hidden and waiting to be heard.

There's little harm in re-stating an apology.  It's important to be specific and to hit home the message to the other person that he or she is truly understood. Start with the statement, "I acknowledge you have been hurt by my actions.  Our ongoing challenge will be that I'm having a hard time understanding what you're telling me."  "It's going to take longer than you'd like for me to get up to speed, but I am on it."

Scott wisely reminds us, "Keep the focus on the other person's emotions. Don't say, "I understand because I've been there, too, unless you're really intent upon coming clear or clean as in, "You know this used to happen to me as a kid.  My mom and dad could hardly keep it together finding the place where we met to exchange us and this was before cell phones or answering machines."

For a cathartic apology, how about, "I promised myself not to let this happen when I became a parent and now it has.  I'm working on this."  The upset person doesn't care; in the heat of the moment, he feels like his experience is unique. But if you can express yourself genuinely what you're left with is an authentic exchange, difficult and worthwhile, despite crying and any other growing pains inflicted.

2. Solicit what the angry person wants from you.

What this sounds like for the custody crowd: "I forgot it was your birthday.  How can I make it up to you right now?" "Step-sibling broke a prized possession while you were with your 'other' parent.  How can I help you now?"  Most anger develops when the person perceives the world (or situation) as unfair, a wrong needs fixing.  Sometimes, though, the anger stems from a bigger sense of being wronged - one parent had an affair as they exited the relationship and now the children feel abandoned too.

Again Scott so eloquently on the subject, "But nobody wants to listen to endless ranting. So cut to the chase by moving the conversation (even if it's mostly one-sided barking, so far) to a more proactive realm. Basically you're saying, in a nice way, "Let me help.  What do you want me to do about it?"

3. Offer what help you can -- or say clearly what you can't do.

What this sounds like for the custody crowd: You may be able to fill the desire: "Let me see if I can include you in the carpool so you can take advantage of help with driving when the children are with you. You may hear that an apology is desired, if you accept some fault for the situation: "Hey, I'm sorry, I forgot it was my turn to bring the class snack.  It was such an awkward moment for you to be the kid who let down the whole class," and then let the aggrieved party vent a bit and take what I call a "toxic dump" followed by, "Please accept my apology - I want to make it up by working with your teacher to do something special on another day."

Scott is so smart, "If you truly decide that it's not within your power to help. If so, express that clearly.  Sometimes it's within your power to help, but you choose not to -- that's setting a boundary, and it's perfectly OK. Express it as a "can't" rather than a "don't want to":"  "I wish I could trade weekends with you.  Maybe, next time you ask, I will be able to."  "I can't help tonight with your school project but I can make a trip to the art supply store later today and deliver them to you."

Or, "I know you're mad about no longer being one family under one roof, but I can't do anything about that. It is what it is.  I take you seriously, and will take your thoughts and feelings seriously.  I promise to get back to soon to let you know what I can do to rebuild a sense of family with me that you feel we've lost." If 2 weeks or more passes and there's no further dialogue on the subject, the aggrieved has the right to approach the other and remind them of the need for continued conversation.  As Elaine Bridge, Psy. D., LCSW once very wisely told me, in a respectful two-person relationship one doesn't have the right to say the conversation is 'over.'

Do you want to hear more of Scott's advice based on four more of her observations on how to engage the disregulated in the "other" and tame what's disregulated in you at the same time?  If you guessed that one is to employ humor, you're right.  I'm curious to know what has or hasn't worked for you.

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