Christian Life Coaching Bookstore

How to Apologize without Saying You’re Sorry, by Tony Stoltzfus

Apr 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Transformational Coaching

Apologies are important: ever been in a situation where you got really hurt and the other individual wouldn’t even so much as apologize to you? That’s one of the ultimate snubs: you got hurt, but your life and your feelings mean so little to me that I’m not even going to bother to take the time to acknowledge it. The failure to apologize is also a clear message that the person will not be accepting responsibility for the problem. If he or she can’t even express remorse over what happened, it is certain that no real repentance or changed behavior will be forthcoming.

However, what sounds like an apology isn’t always the true article. I was once in a two-hour reconciliation session over a conflict that destroyed a 20-year relationship. The other individual was very conciliatory and took a posture of regret, which made me feel better during the meeting. But when I reflected on the conversation later, I realized with a jolt that not once had he admitted something was his fault, asked for forgiveness, said he was wrong, apologized or expressed a need to change. His posture of sorrow was meaningless.

Eight False Sorrows
As a parent, I’ve often mediated the little hurts and conflicts that come up when children are young. “He pushed me!” “She was teasing me!” “He took my favorite teddy bear!” Kids are so transparent that the quality of their sorrow is readily apparent in the way they voice their apologies. Which ones of these have you observed?

  • The Hand-in-the-Cookie-Jar Sorrow: The sorrow of getting caught and facing the consequences. I am sorry because of what might happen to me, not what I did to you. This sorrow only leads to a change of behavior if the severity of the punishment divided by the chances of your getting caught outweighs the reward you get from continuing the behavior.
  • The Perfunctory Sorrow: I am sorry because I am supposed to be (“Johnny, you need to say you are sorry to Susie.” Big sigh: “OK, Dad.”) This is a rote apology, not real sorrow. Nothing ever changes with this one.
  • The Escapist Sorrow: I say empty words of apology (often formulaic) to bring the conflict mediation session to an end, or to escape punishment for being unrepentant. (“I’m sorry I took his cookie. Can I go now?”) My motive is not concern for the other person’s well-being, but my own.
  • The Manipulative Sorrow: Expressing remorse to  influence the outcome of the situation, or get back on mom and dad’s good side. Here I am actively trying to influence other people’s opinion of me. This is a cover up.
  • The Blame-shifting Sorrow: I say I am sorry, but then immediately blame the other person. “I’m sorry I called her names, but she started it!” or “I’m sorry you got mad.” By blame shifting, we avoid really admitting that we are responsible.
  • The Beyond-My-Control Sorrow. “I’m sorry I broke your toy, but it was too fragile.”  Circumstances forced me to do this. Lack of time or money, or the actions of another person left me no other choice. I absolve myself from bearing the consequences of my behavior because of the circumstance.
  • The End-Justifies-the-Means Sorrow: I feel I can justify the pain I caused you. “I’m sorry I took your bike, but I had to go to Jimmie’s house.” I rationalize hurting you as necessary for what I (not you!) feel is a more important end.
  • The Crocodile Tears Sorrow: I feel bad because you feel bad, not because of what I did. I focus on creating good feeling again relationship but never deal with what I actually did. (To crying little brother: “I’m so sorry. Here’s a lollipop–that’ll make you feel better.”)
  • The Phantom Sorrow: I take a sorrowful tone but never admit any guilt or take any responsibility. This is a form of emotional manipulation, where I try to get the benefits of giving an apology (restored trust and relationship) without paying the price (admitting wrongdoing and changing my behavior) of actually apologizing.

I’ve used examples from children that we can all relate to. But we do exactly the same things as adults; we’re just more sophisticated about hiding our true heart-posture than kids are.

For instance, the Manipulative Sorrow is what we often see in apologies of public figures. When a leader who has repeatedly denied something finally is confronted with unmistakable evidence of his wrong-doing,  a prepared statement (often a Perfunctory Sorrow or a Hand-in-the-Cookie-Jar Sorrow) is the first step in damage control. These public apologies are a carefully calculated gesture, often even written by a publicist to minimize the damage, spin the situation and turn public opinion back in their favor. That’s Manipulative Sorrow.

Often these prepared statements are filled with “buts”. For instance,  “I’m sorry, but public servants shouldn’t be subjected to these kinds of witch hunts” (there’s the Blame-shifting Sorrow); or “I’m sorry, but I was on prescription drugs at the time and they interfered with my judgment (the Beyond-My-Control Sorrow),” or “I’m sorry, but the stresses of leadership, a heavy campaign schedule and long public service (there’s the spin) put undue pressure on my marriage, and I made a miscalculation (The Phantom Sorrow: what an artful choice of words in place of, “I had a two-year adulterous affair with another man’s wife!”)

Here’s a way to check how you express sorrow. What were your responses the last time one of these things happened to you:

You got a speeding or parking ticket?

  • You laugh it off. “I fought the law, and I guess the law won! (No sorrow.)
  • “Am I sorry? Heck yes, it cost $169!” (the Hand-in-the-Cookie-Jar Sorrow)
  • You tell the officer that you are so sorry, and a week later you are driving just as fast (the Perfunctory Sorrow)
  • You are very apologetic and polite to the officer to try to get off (the Manipulative Sorrow)
  • “Well, I’m sorry I was speeding, but I didn’t realize that this was a 45 zone” (the Blame-shifting Sorrow)
  • “I’m sorry I was speeding, but I was on my way to the hospital” (the End-Justifies-the-Means Sorrow)

Real Apologies
So what’s a real apology sound like?

“I’m sorry I did that to you. I realize it was wrong. Here’s how I need to change…”

The best apologies include the five R’s:

  • Recognition that what I did was wrong
  • Remorse for how it affected you
  • Responsibility – I did this. I own my actions and their effects
  • Restitution – the evidence of taking responsibility
  • Repentance – changed behavior to keep it from happening again

So check your apologies, and make sure you have a sorrow that leads to repentance instead of one that leads nowhere!

Tony Stoltzfus is a long-time coach, master coach trainer, author of seven coaching books and a recognized leader in the Christian coaching field.

Tags: , , ,


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.