The Three Components of an Effective Apology

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People make mistakes all the time. Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don’t think that we’ve made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.

Here’s the real question: If we’ve done something that offends someone else–whether or not we feel we are to blame–should we apologize?

I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we’ve hurt or offended someone else–even if we think the offended person’s anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.

Often, the impact of our actions is not what we intended. But here’s the thing: Impact matters more than intention. Our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our social connections–our relationships with friends, family, partners, spouses, neighbors, colleagues–and so broken or fraying connections are usually worth repairing.

We don’t repair a fissure in one of our relationships by ignoring it. (We have a saying in our family: You can sweep sh*t under the rug, but it is still going to smell.) And we don’t repair it by blaming someone else, or defending our actions. We initiate a repair by apologizing.

But all apologies aren’t created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced “SORRY!” and known it was worthless.)

So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare’s work, I’ve created the following three-step method for making a good apology.

Step 1: Tell them what you feel. (Just the remorseful feelings, please.) Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry” to express remorse. “I’m sorry” is more effective when we elaborate on our remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry and saddened to hear that my lack of communication has made you so angry and resentful.” Or, “I’m so sorry and embarrassed and ashamed that my comment caused such an uproar.”

What is not constructive is succumbing to–and sharing–feelings of resentment or defensiveness, like, “I’m sorry… you’re being so petty and critical.”

Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had. This is the hardest part, because it requires admitting responsibility for our actions or behavior. This can feel impossible if we don’t really think we did much wrong, or if our intentions were good.

Ask yourself: How is the other person feeling? What did I do that caused that feeling? Could I have done something differently? Then acknowledge these things. Empathize with the offended person; the most important thing is that you demonstrate that you know how they feel. (Don’t apologize until you truly do understand how they are feeling; if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, your apology will ring untrue.)

For example: “I can see that my comment hurt your feelings, and that you are feeling misunderstood and uncared for.” Or to your partner you might say, “I know that it was wrong of me to call you out in front of the whole family, and that you are angry because I’ve hurt your credibility with the kids. I’m sure that was embarrassing, and it was a mistake for me to do that.”

This is where most of us are tempted to offer an explanation for our behavior. When in doubt, leave the explanation out; trying to explain away our actions can seem like we’re being defensive, or making excuses. (Remember, the point is to repair the relationship, not make the other person see that you were right.)

If you need to shed light on why you did what you did, be careful to continue to take responsibility for the negative impact you had. Saying, “I really didn’t know that you would be offended” is an excuse, not a good explanation. Whining that you didn’t intend for the other person to be hurt doesn’t shed light on anything. More effective would be saying, “It is no excuse for standing you up, but I want you to know that my stepfather had just had a stroke, and I was so frantic to get to the hospital that I forgot to call you.”

If you do offer an explanation, it can help to reiterate your mistake and again acknowledge how the other person feels: “Again, I’m so sorry that I didn’t call you, and that you were stuck there waiting for me for an hour. I can only imagine how upset, worried, and angry you must be.”

Step 3: Make the situation right. Good apologies include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Maybe you create an opportunity for the person you embarrassed to regain credibility. Or perhaps you admit your mistake to others, too, as a part of the reparation. In many relationships, a hug is a great reparation.

Often, all we need to do is explain what we are going to do differently the next time so that we don’t repeat the offending action or behavior. This helps us rebuild trust and repair the relationship.

If you aren’t sure how to make it right, just ask, “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”

Above all, deliver on any promises you make. When we feel guilty or embarrassed, sometimes we over-correct in our attempt to gain forgiveness. If the person is asking for something that you can’t give, say so, and say that you will give some thought to what you can give to make it up to them.

Knowing how to apologize well is at the top of my Sweet Spot Manifesto. It’s a life skill I want my children to practice and master. And it’s one that I’m still working on myself.

Inspire others: When has an apology made all the difference in your life?

Are you wanting one of these apologies? Whenever I talk or write about making apologies, people often respond by wishing that someone else would apologize to them. If this is you, please send me an email or leave your story in the comments–I will try to address your situation in a future post!

Photo courtesy of Tina Leggio





Dream Workshop with The New York City Ballet

When she reached out to the New York City Ballet about a dance program for children with special needs, she didn’t expect a response. But what resulted is nothing short of sheer joy. For everyone.





Thursday Thought

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“Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options.” —Simone Sinek





The Brewing Backlash Against Busyness

By: Justina Reichel

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Don Quincy/DQC Photo

Today it seems like all ‘successful’ people in life are the ones who keep up with the breakneck pace that society sets for us. But what if I told you that the pride you feel by immersing yourself in the culture of busyness is just an illusion?

In fact, it’s no secret that many people would rather be overwhelmed by a list of never-ending tasks than come face to face with their uncomfortable feelings or relationship problems. And it has been seen that over time, this excessive busyness takes a noticeable toll on our physical as well as mental health.

Although, there does seem to be a light at the end of this dark –and busy– tunnel. Businesses and individuals alike are taking a stand to confront this problem and find ways to help people get out of this harmful busyness cycle.

Check out the rest of this article to see what others are doing to increase their downtime and gain more by doing less.





Happiness Tip: Trade Expectations for Gratitude

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Feeling frustrated or disappointed?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t have high expectations, or that we shouldn’t feel hurt when someone lets us down. But one of the best ways to recover from disappointment is to notice what actually is going well in our lives.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions we have — we have reams of research indicating that gratitude is a part of the happiness holy grail. Compared with those who aren’t practicing gratitude, scientists have found that people practicing gratitude:

  • Are considerably more enthusiastic, interested, and determined;
  • Feel 25% happier;
  • Are more likely to be both kind and helpful to other.

And that’s not all. Gratitude studies report long laundry lists of the benefits of gratitude. For example, people who jotted down something they were grateful for online everyday for just two weeks showed higher stress resilience and greater satisfaction with life, reported fewer headaches, and a reduction in stomach pain, coughs and sore throats!

Gratitude is a SKILL, like learning to speak German or swing a bat: can be taught, and it needs to be practiced consciously and deliberately. Yet, unlike learning German, practicing gratitude can be blissfully simple: just count the things in your life that you feel thankful for.

Here are a couple of ideas to get started:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. This can be a handwritten journal or kept online (there are loads of web-based versions) or even just jotted down in your calendar. I’m not a big journaler, but I’m thinking about using Facebook as a gratitude journal. Every day I’ll record something that makes me happy, something I’m grateful for — either by typing it in or by taking a picture. I can then share my gratitude with my family. (Though I do wonder if this will be annoying to people, or if I’ll get distracted by other people’s posts. Maybe Instagram? What do you think?) As an alternative, try texting your appreciation to people who’ve helped you out.
  • Start a tradition of writing “appreciations” on place cards at family dinners or on holidays. Depending on your comfort level for group sharing, make place cards for each person present, and then ask people to write a few adjectives that describe what they appreciate about one another on the inside of the place cards. Don’t ask people to write something about everyone present unless they want to — you don’t want to force the exercise. But do make sure that everyone has at least one thing written inside their place card, so that during the meal you can go around the table and share appreciations.

Join the Discussion: What are you grateful for? How do you express your appreciation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.





The Ugly Judgement of Society

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Thursday Thought

Ralph Waldo Emerson“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson





6 Ways to Be Happy Alone

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Chris Crisman/Corbis

A study suggests that people have a hard time being alone with their thoughts. What can you do about it?

Everybody spends time alone, but some of us find it more difficult than others. The potential benefits of solitude include reduced stress, enhanced creativity, and improved concentration. Yet a recent study suggests that many people prefer any stimuli, even negative ones, to being alone with their thoughts.

Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, isn’t surprised. “Our normal state of being is constant stimulation,” she says. “We live in a culture of busyness, where we’re constantly moving, constantly doing, constantly on the go. We equate being busy with meaningfulness, so when we’re alone, it can trigger a lot of fear and anxiety that our lives are lacking meaning.”

Continue this post on Health Matters with Dr. Sanjay Gupta





Start your own meditation practice

Portrait of a young business woman at office

The benefits of meditation are tremendous. In a world that is “on” 24/7, few of us get much regular rest. We go go go — perhaps getting a lot of work done, or cramming loads of activity into the day — while ignoring our body’s natural rhythms and need for post-sprint recovery. The result is that many of us are more stressed out, anxious, and depressed than previous generations.

A terrific antidote (that we all have with us all the time) is simple meditation. Scores of studies have shown the benefits of meditation to be broad and profound: meditation lowers our stress and anxiety, helps us focus, and, ironically, makes us more productive. Meditation even makes us healthier! After meditating daily for eight weeks, research subjects were 76% less likely than a non-meditating control group to miss work due to illness, and if they did get a cold or a flu, it lasted only five days on average, whereas the control group illnesses lasted an average of eight.

Here’s how: Sit in a comfortable position, spine straight and hands relaxed in your lap. Close your eyes, and turn your attention to your breath. Breathe naturally, controlling your attention, not your breath. When your mind wanders (it will) gently bring your attention back to noticing your breath. Try to meditate for 10-20 minutes before you go back to the hustle and bustle of the day, to really give yourself a break.

(If you are new to meditation, you can also start with just a minute or so and build up to 20 minutes. Or, check out some of these free guided meditations here; there are many different ways to meditate. I particularly like loving-kindness meditations if you want to get fancy.)

Photo courtesy of Anton Petukhov





Living Lives of Gratitude

Gratitude has inspired both of these women in two very unique ways! See their heartwarming stories here.

A film by Hailey Bartholomew. More at 365 Grateful.