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The Power of the Apology

Nura Mowzoon is a relationship coach with a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. Dr. Mowzoon teaches at Arizona State University.

There are three simple words that can have the most profound effect on an individual. Words which, the minute they fall from one’s lips, can brighten someone’s day, lift their spirits, and make everything seem better. There are three tiny words that can change the entire course of a difficult conversation and instantly bring two people closer together.

“I am sorry.”

It’s happened to all of us. We’re confronted with a situation that we may or may not have expected, where we’ve hurt the feelings of someone we care about. And in that moment, there’s a small part of us that thinks, “Oops, I screwed up.” But quickly this voice is silenced by the louder voice that tells us, “You don’t want to look bad, you’d better defend yourself.” Usually we give in to this louder voice, and become more focused on defending our actions rather than trying to see things through the other person’s eyes. In the quest to explain ourselves, we become more concerned with how the other person sees us, rather than being concerned with how they are actually feeling. What we don’t realize is that by showing concern for the other person’s feelings, their view of us will inevitably improve. It’s about taking the time to actually take a step back, allowing yourself to understand where the other person is coming from and essentially humbling yourself enough to take ownership for your part of the dynamic.

Too often we associate saying, “I’m sorry” with taking blame and admitting fault. The minute we realize that we have inadvertently hurt someone else’s feelings, our immediate reaction is one of defensiveness – we try to explain why we did what we did, why we said what we said, or why the other person’s understanding is just plain wrong. What happens in this scenario, however, is that the person who is already feeling hurt is now also feeling disregarded and even more frustrated, and often ends up arguing further to prove the validity of their pain. Now two people are on the defensive, finding themselves stuck in a downward spiral of resistance and hurt.

As a couple’s coach, I cannot stress enough how often this simple phrase could have healed a conflict which started out relatively small, but eventually escalated into something huge and somewhat confusing. You know when you get to a point in an argument where you don’t even remember why you’re arguing in the first place? It’s usually because the two people involved were so caught up in deflecting blame that they didn’t stop to actually take care of the other person’s heart. Apologizing when someone’s heart is hurt doesn’t mean that you are taking blame, it just means that you care that they are hurting, and helping to alleviate this pain is important to you.

In the words of Stephen Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” We need to learn how to set our ego aside in disagreements and instead acknowledge that someone else’s perception is their truth. If we’re going to come to any healthy resolution we must strive to meet the other person where they are coming from, and give validity to their perception. This is not to say that you should not explain your perspective and address a potential misunderstanding; however it is important to first sincerely acknowledge the other person’s pain, and then in a spirit of love and collaboration offer your angle. The key here is having the intention to arrive at a place of mutual understanding and peace, not to prove your point or win the argument. Fundamentally, the purpose is to shift from being self-focused to other-focused.

The minute you offer a sincere apology to the person who is hurt, you’ve diffused the situation. It’s really difficult to stay angry when the other person actually recognizes your perspective and wants to make things better. Saying you’re sorry is an extremely vulnerable move, which is why it’s so hard to do but by taking the first step in vulnerability the other person’s guard will drop and you can both hopefully begin to work towards a healthier understanding. Learning the art of apologizing will not only help diffuse unpleasant situations but it also provides you with an opportunity to learn and grow, to acknowledge things about yourself which could be improved, as well as learning how to handle the delicate hearts of your loved ones.

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