How NOT to Say Sorry

What follows is a series about what has probably been the hardest life lesson I’ve ever had to learn.

When I finished high school, rather than jumping straight into a uni degree that I was approximately 17% sure I wanted to make a career out of, I decided I would take a gap year instead. So, I packed a suitcase with exactly 23kg of my belongings and moved to Australia, to do a year of youth ministry with an organisation called NET (National Evangelisation Teams).

Working for NET involved being put on a team with five other people who were almost total strangers. The expectation was that we would live together, work together, eat all our meals together, and spend the vast majority of our downtime together.

Needless to say, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

But if there’s one thing that living with these 5 strangers (who didn’t stay strangers for long) taught me, it was how to resolve conflict.

So I wanted to write this series, because there have been too many times in the past year when a friend has given me insight into some kind of long-standing conflict that is causing a whole lot of damage in their life.

Let me ask you: Do you have any relationships in your life that have been damaged by conflict and never fully been repaired? Anyone that you’ve had a falling out with, miss terribly, but have no idea how to make things ok again? Any grudges that have seen your friends, flatmates or family taking sides?

At some point, I’m sure every person could answer “yes” to at least one of these questions.

Unfortunately, humans aren’t typically great at resolving conflict. We’ve come a long way from duelling pistols at dawn, sure. But still, not great.

Pistols at dawn

As far as I can tell, there are a couple of reasons for this:

1) Conflict resolution is hard. As if the initial conflict wasn’t unpleasant enough, you’re now faced with the prospect of enduring another confrontation in an attempt to resolve it. And if it doesn’t go well, you’ll probably end up with more conflict.

2) Unless your parents are master conflict-resolvers, you’ve probably grown up without any role models for healthy conflict resolution.

This is problematic, because conflict is an ordinary part of life. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, we all say and do things we later regret. When we do, it’s important to say sorry and try to repair the relationship.

Despite getting literally schooled in conflict resolution during my gap year, I still get this wrong more often then I get it right. That said, there’s a lot that can be learned from trial and error, so let’s start with how NOT to say sorry:

“I’m sorry, but…”

A classic. When making an apology, it’s tempting to try explain or justify your actions. However, the moment you tag a “but” onto the end of your apology, it’s seems like you’re making an excuse to shift the blame onto someone/something else.

Maybe the person on the other side is at least partially responsible for what went down, but their wrongdoing doesn’t excuse your own. You’ve always got a choice about how we respond, so take responsibility for that.

Other times, in saying “but” people aren’t trying to excuse their actions, they’re genuinely trying to help the other person understand where they’re coming from. Their “but” is a “good but” – like someone who does squats several times a week. That said, even if you’ve got good intentions, there are probably better ways to let the other person know where you’re coming from, that don’t involve attaching this particular conjunction to your apology. More on this in Part 3.

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“I’m sorry you feel that way

If you’re apologising for someone else’s emotional state, you’re probably carrying out a grand total of zero self-reflection. This non-pology implies that it’s the other person’s fault for feeling the way they feel, rather than showing remorse for anything you said or did that might have hurt them. It’s often accompanied by the attitude:

{I didn’t do anything wrong}

(Note: Quote marks “” refer to something said out-loud. Squiggly brackets {} refer to something thought in-quiet).

One of the biggest break-throughs I had concerning conflict resolution was coming to the realisation that apologising doesn’t have to mean that you were in the wrong. There can be times where you haven’t actually said or done anything bad, but the situation still merits an apology. Let me give an example:

One evening a couple of years ago I was with a few friends for a movie night. To set up for the movie, I pushed one of the couches against the back wall of the room, blocking a door in the process. At this point, one of my friends became visibly upset and told me to move the couch back. When I asked what the problem was, she pushed the couch away herself and stormed out of the room, leaving me in total confusion. Seriously, the last time there had been so much conflict over moving a couch was that one episode of friends.

Screen Shot 2017-05-27 at 7.49.51 PM

However, when I got a chance to talk to this friend later that evening, she told me that when she was a kid, her childhood home had burnt down. Having experienced the trauma of that event, she understandably had a real fear of exits being blocked.

Now, in that situation I hadn’t done anything morally wrong (though those of you who are particularly safety conscious might disagree). I hadn’t intended to cause conflict or upset my friend, I just wanted to watch 22 Jump Street. But was I still sorry that I had caused distress to someone I cared about? Absolutely.

In situations like this, there is a world of difference between saying saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” and “I’m sorry I caused you to feel that way.” The first sentence implies that the way the other person is feeling is wrong, whereas the second communicates that regardless of whether what you did was wrong, you’re sorry that it hurt the other person.

The “BIG DEAL”

This was an old favourite of mine. In a past-life (before I became the conflict-enlightened being who writes for you today) when someone brought up something I had done that bothered them, I would usually respond with some variation of “I didn’t realise it was such a big deal”, “you don’t have to make it such a big deal” or “Is it really such a big deal?

At this point, the unfortunate person who had just put themselves out there to resolve a conflict faced something of a conundrum. They could reply “yes” and incur my scorn for freaking out over something minor OR they could reply “no” and get hit with the immediate follow up, “then why are you making a big deal out of it?”

In reality, it might just be that leaving my dirty dishes in the sink and then hiding them under a picture of a clean sink frustrated someone.

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It’s not a big deal, and he/she almost certainly didn’t want to make it one. But the minute I came out with a reaction like this, I was implying that the other person was overreacting to what is, at most, a small-to-moderately sized deal.”

Since then, I’ve learnt that something doesn’t have to be a big deal to upset someone, it shouldn’t have to be a big deal for them to bring it up with you, and it definitely shouldn’t have to be a big deal before you’re willing to apologise.

{They deserved it}

For this last category, we need to admit that sometimes we’re less-than-awesome human beings. Sometimes, we know full-well that we shouldn’t have acted the way we did, but we refuse to apologise, because the other person deserved it.

This attitude, more than any of the others, leads to the we-haven’t-spoken-in-5-years kind of conflict. Both sides having done something wrong, both sides kinda know they did something wrong, but neither side is willing to back down.

If you’re childhood was anything like mine, when circumstances like these arose, your mum was quick to tell you “be the bigger person.” My response was usually something along the lines of “If I was the bigger person, I’d be able to beat him up for what he did!”

Despite being a cliché bit of advice that I didn’t quite understand at the age of 5, this has definitely started to ring true later in life.

Psychologist Karen Young makes the fantastic point that apologising in these circumstances has everything to do with who you are as a person, and nothing to do with what the other person deserved. Maybe they did deserve it it and maybe they have no interest in resolving the conflict whatsoever. But so what? Why should their issue stop you from being true to yourself and doing the right thing?

Resolving Conflict Without Murder is a five part series about exactly that. This is Part 1. Read Part 2 here.

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