I think Elton John, or perhaps Bernie Taupin, had the right of it.
Two of the things human beings seem to have the most trouble with for some reason are two very short phrases, sometimes related:
- I’m sorry.
- I was wrong.
Recently, I was put in mind of this, as I sometimes am. Sometimes it’s something that comes to mind because I seem to be saying both a lot. Sometimes it’s just random, because I’m strange.
Anyway, these are very simple things. Yet, simple does not always mean easy. No, these are not easy things at all, not for most of us, but they’re quite simple. My basic philosophy on both “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” is this: offer them without reservation, without conditions, with no strings attached, sincerely, and from the heart. It’s a tall order. It’s something most of us are very reluctant to do. Well suck it up, buttercup, because that’s the only way that those things actually work. They have to be offered with no strings, with no reservations, with no conditions, sincerely, and from the heart.
A long time ago, I got a really great lesson in how not to offer an apology. It made such a strong impression on me that I refer to it still, and i bring it up in my mind when it’s my turn to say I’m sorry, so I know both how to do it and how not to.
One day, I came home late. It wasn’t really late, but it was later than I was expected. But I was going to university, and sometimes things happen that keep you out a little. So I walked in the door and I got an earful about how I should have called, why was I late, I was selfish and only thought of myself, and a whole host of things. This speech left me angry, resentful, and pretty miserable. In this state of mind, I went back to my room. In a short time, my mom came back and said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you pissed me off.” Rather than its probably intended effect, the apology had rather the opposite effect. It isolated me further, made me even more resentful and angry, and was the one thing that sparked my intention to move out as quickly as possible. Probably not its intended effect, but that’s what happened. Looking back on it, I think, in just a few words, it broke every one of the rules I’ve made for myself when offering up an apology. So in that respect, it was valuable; it taught me how to do it and, as importantly, how not to.
The rules are simple, but, as I said, not easy. Here they are.
- Say the words. I’m sorry. Or, I was wrong. Then, shut up.
- If you need to explain what you’re sorry for, do that. But “I’m sorry” has to be the last thing. Because, shut up (See above). Something like, “When such and such happened, this is how I reacted to it. I was wrong to have reacted that way, and I’m sorry.” Then, shut up.
- Mean it. If you say it and don’t mean it, the person to whom you are apologizing will know. Whether you mean it or not always tells. Always. So you’d better mean it, or else don’t even bother.
- Don’t justify. Remember “Shut up”? Yeah. Don’t justify. Don’t qualify. DOn’t…do….anything else. You can explain if you need to, but explain, don’t justify. “My intention was [insert good intentions], and I’m sorry that that isn’t what happened.”
It’s true that sometimes, “I’m sorry” won’t fix everything. Still, if done right, and sincerely, it sure can help. When asked “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?”, I’d have to say that, while being right has a certain amount of satisfaction attached to it, being happy is much, much better. (This is coming from a guy who has both been wrong a lot, and also insisted on his rightness a lot.) But being happy is a lot better, and I believe learning the art of the apology, a thing I’m still learning every day, has made my life and my relation to other people much more fulfilling.