The Art of the Heart-apology
Lets start with why. What are we trying to accomplish in either offering an apology or receiving one. (For the sake of this thought I am leaving aside any apologies of insincerity and manipulation, because those aren't apologies). In the best cases the "apologizer" wants to make the recipient feel better. In less self aware cases they are trying to make themselves feel better by not being the bad guy. In reality, it's usually both. I think the goal of everyone involved could best be described as "wanting to make everything okay". Okay meaning: comfortable, safe and harmonious.
Lets assume an apology is needed because something was done (said insinuated... you get the idea) that disrupted the balance of comfort, safety and harmony between the two parties. Our intention is to restore harmony and balance to the relationship. So often though, apologies fall short or miss the mark. Why is that? Often it's because we failed to ask: what does the person feeling uncomfortable, hurt or mistrustful need in order to feel safe again?
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say maybe they need to be understood.
What we are looking for in an apology is some sort of assurance that it won't happen again. This does not, I repeat: DOES NOT, come from simply hearing the words "it won't happen again" (although it might involve them, there are no hard and fast rules). What does it come from? Someone truly understanding how and why what they have done felt harmful to you. That's it. Until they get get all the way into your experience with you and see whatever blind spot caused them to tread on that trigger apologies are just people throwing words around like they mean something. Once someone feels what you feel from your point of view (or at least tries to, genuinely and without reservation) we know that they hurt with us if they hurt us, and we begin to feel safe again. We feel closer. We are on the same side.
This is why a true apology can be so rare: It takes a gargantuan reserve of courage to access the humility that makes this empathy possible. This humility is a generosity that comes from a strength of character and a natural assurance in our inherent value as beings. It is the generosity that comes from knowing that nothing can strip us of that value.
So here is my utterly unofficial, work in progress guide to the sincere, heartfelt apology:
1. I try to put myself in their shoes. Yep. All the way in. Feel deeply into their shoes. Chuck Taylors? Stilleto heels? Shoes with an absentee father? Shoes with lots of pressure and expectations? Shoes with a history of systematic oppression?
2. I don't talk about myself. My intentions don't matter. They do, in the bigger picture, sure. In this moment, though, I am getting in touch with the other person's feelings, and understanding their point of view. I cannot do this if I stay focused on explaining and justifying my actions. They want to know that I feel how they feel.
3. Instead, Acknowledge their experience. No, not "I'm sorry you feel that way". Never that. More like : "I can see that my actions made you feel: ________ because of______.
4. I Take responsibility for the right things. I can't take responsibility for their experience, thoughts feelings and emotions. I can't control them or make them un-mad at me. I can take responsibility for my experiences and actions, and through understanding and empathy show my willingness to be helpful and sensitive.
5. I Stay open and keep learning. This is the walk the talk part. Staying humble and continuing to put on different shoes. Any shoes. All of the shoes (and now I am revealing my shoe fetish). This isn't an obligation or ordeal. It's an incredible opportunity rich in new experiences.
This is a classic case of I wrote it because I need it. I've been thinking a lot about my privileges and the blind spots they create. I know that I will mess up. I will trigger people unintentionally. I have and I will again, and that that needn't stop me from being an ally. I might not be able to fully understand many, many experiences that my fellow beings have had, but I do believe that deep empathy and togetherness comes naturally to us and I am willing to face the discomfort because it is important to me that we all feel safe. That we all feel understood. That we all feel heard and that the dumb and ignorant ways in which we hurt each other. Never. happen. again.