“Just Say ‘I’m Sorry’”

Full disclosure. I really don’t like making mistakes, and I’m guessing you’re not that crazy about getting caught making one either. I hate when I miss a client session because I didn’t double-check my calendar, or when I miscalculate how much time I’ll need to prepare a CEO for a board presentation. And I hate when I’ve said or done something that offends a friend or family member. Even now, admitting mistakes and saying  “I’m sorry” can make me feel as vulnerable as I did when I made my first big apology to Mrs. Fox, my second-grade teacher. I don’t remember the specific infraction but I think it had something to do with talking during storytime. That afternoon when I came home and sheepishly told my mother,  she insisted that I go back the next day and apologize not only to Mrs. Fox but to the whole class. When I begged her to go with me she refused.  She said this is what grown-ups do when they make a mistake. 

So, while I don’t enjoy being wrong or admitting it,  I feel much worse if I don’t. A few weeks ago I received a curt email from my insurance company announcing that they were canceling my homeowners policy in three weeks. I was shocked and I was furious. I was a long-time customer and this was the way they chose to tell me? No explanation? No phone call? Without pausing I dialed the agent, barely said hello, and then I launched into a tirade of their despicable customer service. When I finally came up for a breath, she said, “Peggy, you’re right, it is despicable and very disturbing and I am so sorry. This is not the way I do business.  Unfortunately, I am no longer your agent because I got promoted to management. I didn’t know about this.”

Well,  that took a bit of the wind out of my sails. As she apologized I could feel my anger dissipate substantially. I still felt justified in being upset, but I realized I had misplaced my anger, and it was my  turn to say “I’m sorry.“

After the call, I made a list of behaviors that made me angry. I ranked them on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the most furious, and then I promised myself that I would do two things in the future. First, I would abide by the 24-hour rule,’ which allows me to cool off before I make the call or write the email. I would also use the prompt pause, breathe deeply, and react calmly and with compassion when confronted with an anger-inducing incident.  

Now, what about the people who can never admit to making a mistake no matter how egregious the circumstance? You know, the ones who are incapable of apologizing even when they are so clearly in the wrong. I’m not a psychologist (although I almost played one on TV), but I have enough psychological insight to know that for these people, offering an apology can be psychologically threatening, perhaps triggering severe mental or emotional stress. Admitting wrongdoing may elicit feelings of shame that they are unwilling to experience or process.  People with fragile egos and low self-esteem will find it too frightening to entertain these feelings. So instead of owning their part, they will go on the offensive blaming others, denying the facts, and exhibiting bullying behavior. This unfortunately makes them feel empowered and blameless. 

When dealing with people who refuse to admit mistakes and apologize regardless of how inarguably the facts are, I believe it’s best if you accept that’s who they are and they are probably never going to change. Then, when those situations come up, make your points calmly and then disengage when the conversation begins to deteriorate into excuses and accusations. 

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