Please Forgive Me

Bruce Springsteen built his long career on giving voice to some of the most raucous, joyful, and often painful aspects of the human condition. I think his songs resonate for so many people because they describe the intense feelings of love and loss, joy and disappointment that we all share in. His Springsteen on Broadway show (now available on Netflix) is worth a look, even if you’re lukewarm on his music. The storytelling is what makes this experience something truly special.

I was struck in particular by one part of the show. He describes at some length the fraught relationship he had growing up with his father, Douglas Springsteen. The elder Springsteen was a difficult, stoic man whose approval the young Bruce was desperate to receive – and never got. Even after he had achieved rare and phenomenal success as a performer, he failed to connect in any meaningful way with his dad. And it hurt.

It wasn’t until 1990, before the birth of his first son, that Bruce got the one thing he craved. The elder Springsteen, perhaps sensing that time was running out for him, came to visit his son. “Bruce,” he said, “you’ve been very good to us, and maybe I wasn’t so good to you.” It wasn’t much, but it was the closest thing to an apology that Bruce ever got from his father, and fortunately, he was wise enough to recognize it as such. He describes this exchange as “probably the single greatest moment of my life.”

Now, just think about that for a second. Here is a man with millions of records sold, untold wealth, legions of adoring fans around the world, and this apology from his father is the greatest moment of his life? Sad, but true.

Apologies are a vitally important part of every healthy adult relationship, and because we’re all human it means we are going to mess up on occasion. Apologies allow us to accept responsibility for our shortcomings, and more importantly, they allow the other person the opportunity of healing. A sincere apology, properly given, can heal even the most fractured of relationships.

How to say “I’m sorry”

In order to be effective, a good apology generally comprises two essential components A) It must show remorse for the actions taken (“I’m sorry that I…”) and B) It must also show an acknowledgment of how those actions may have hurt the other person (“That must have been difficult for you because…”). It takes great courage and humility to apologize, which is why some people can wait years – even decades – for it to come.

While there’s no blueprint for how to apologize, there are some guidelines that can help you reach a better outcome. In an article in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, psychologists Steven Scher and John Darley offer this simple 4-step framework, which I’m paraphrasing here.

Step 1: Express Remorse

Every apology needs to begin with these two magic words “I’m sorry…” And be specific. “I’m sorry that I snapped at you this morning…” or “I’m sorry that I undercut your authority in that way…” shows that you understand what they are upset about. Timeliness is important here. If you know you’ve messed up, or wronged someone, don’t sit on it or let it fester. Apologize immediately.

Step 2: Admit responsibility This is probably the most important part of any apology because it shows you understand why they may be upset. “That was uncalled for, and I think it may have embarrassed you in front of the team…” or “I had no right to say that, and what I said was wrong…” More than the actual apology, often what people want is for someone to understand what they may have felt in the moment. It’s a validation of their feelings, and offers a powerful moment of connection.

Step 3: Offer to make amends Here, you are offering to take some action to make the situation right, now or in the future. “Please let me offer you a full refund and complimentary x,y,z…” or “In the future, I will endeavor to make sure this does not happen to you or anyone else…” People want to know that some corrective action will be taken as a result of this apology.

Step 4: Ask for forgiveness Asking for forgiveness is the hardest part, but also essential if you wish to restore that friendship or relationship. It is the key to reconciliation. But just because you ask for forgiveness does mean it will automatically be given. It may not be, and you have to be okay with that. But you should still ask.

By setting the conditions for a better apology, we can reconcile with others and avoid making them spend months, or even years, waiting for something they are desperate to hear.

Photo credit: Rob DeMartin

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