Back when I was living in the States, I had the privilege of working as a middle school counsellor in Antioch, California. I was thrilled upon starting the job to learn that one of my duties included working with the “Conflict Managers”. The Conflict Managers were a group of students who were trained in conflict resolution strategies, and helped their peers to resolve issues, clear up ‘drama’ and prevent arguments from escalating into physical altercations. So cool, right? It was. It was fun to witness the Conflict Managers engaged with their peers in empathic, compassionate and nurturing ways. It helped to create a school environment of inclusiveness, collaboration, and a culture that empowered kids to help one another and themselves.
It could also be quite frustrating. One of the common issues we ran into was what I’ve come to call a “faux-pology”. A “faux-pology” is exactly as it sounds – a fake apology. One that lacks sincerity, ownership and emotion. Oftentimes, in an effort to end the conflict, or avoid further uncomfortable discussions, the offending person would issue an apology. Their belief was that an apology would solve the problem, or at the very least, release them from the discomfort of feeling responsible for hurting someone (or their feelings). And although perhaps the “victim” was craving an apology, these “faux-pologies” did little to heal the wound.
I’ve since left my job as a school counsellor to pursue my work as a clinical counsellor. As I began to work more and more with couples, I noticed that these “faux-pologies” were not specific to the middle school crowd. Grown-ups were just as guilty of the “faux-pology” faux-pas as teenagers were. Within couples counselling sessions I began to notice not only how frustrating these apologies could be, but how damaging they could be to relationships. I noticed that when one partner used a “faux-pology” in addressing the hurt they’d caused their partner that it didn’t just fall short – it spiralled into a whole new argument. One in which the wounded partner didn’t feel heard, respected and began to feel desperate, hopeless and alone. As much as an apology can feel terrifying to make, the act of doing so makes us vulnerable and can add depth and dimension to a relationship. One in which couples feel as though they can overcome difficult situations and are stronger because of it.
Curious about what a faux-pology might sound like? Here are some common indicators of a less-than sincere amendment:
“I’m sorry, but…”
“I apologize if I hurt you”
“If I did something that hurt you, I’m sorry”
“If you feel I did something wrong, I apologize”
Do any of these sound familiar? I know I’ve heard several variations of each one. I also know that I’ve used one or more of these myself! Apologies are hard. They require us to be vulnerable, admit fault and own up to the fact that we’ve hurt someone – which is typically not our intention.
Apologies can sometimes force us to touch those deep, scary feelings within us like shame, embarassment and guilt. These emotions do NOT like to come to light, so oftentimes we hide them by avoiding addressing our faults or mistakes. It’s a human response, but one that needs to be over-ridden in order to deepen our self-awareness and nurture our valued relationships.
Sometimes apologies can be confusing. We may not even understand how we’ve hurt someone. This is where we have to be careful about how we atone. Using a ‘but’ immediately takes the weight and meaning away from the word “sorry” and typically indicates that we are about to defend ourselves. Defensiveness doesn’t help and never makes the wounded person feel better about the situation. When we throw an ‘if’ in our apology it immediately indicates to the wounded person that we haven’t heard them and that we don’t truly believe that we’ve done anything wrong or hurtful. If you’re unsure of how you’ve made someone feel, ask them. Still confused? Use active listening (blog post to come) to deepen understanding. Include acknowledgement of their feelings and their hurts in your apology.
Remember that body language, tone and eye-contact can make a huge impact in the way we’re received. Keeping all of this in mind, lets look at what a more sincere apology sounds like:
“I know that I’ve hurt you. I’m so sorry”
“I feel so badly that I’ve made you sad – I’m sorry”
“My intention was never to make you feel embarrassed, but I know that I did. I feel awful and I’m sorry”
“I apologize for hurting you, I can see how upset I’ve made you. I never want you to feel that way.”
Apologies that sound like these tend to feel much different than the “faux-pologies” listed above. Hurt feelings have been acknowledged and sorrow has been expressed. There is no defensiveness in these apologies, no vagueness and no ‘buts’. Instead, within these apologies the “offender” validates, expresses regret and takes responsibility. By providing the wounded person with this we set the stage for true forgiveness and ultimately allow forward movement to take place.
An apology is not just saying you’re sorry. An apology is a promise of sorts – wherein we recognize that our behaviour or words (or lack thereof) was hurtful – to not repeat the actions that have caused harm. This is helpful to keep in mind as well. No matter how genuine your apology seems, no matter what beautiful words you use, if you don’t prove to the person you’ve hurt that you will not repeat the offense, then the apology will mean nothing.
So, the next time you find yourself in that uncomfortable place where an apology may need to be given, remember the characteristics of the “faux-pology”…and avoid them at all costs!