“Sorry” is an easy word to spell. But it’s a meaningless word to say, unless it’s delivered effectively.
Today’s Tricky Tuesday is about learning how to deliver an effective Sorry after screwing up again and after promising to do better.
The cast of characters
Jack and Shaya are a young couple with their first child on the way. Jack is one of those people who would do anything for his friends. Shaya loves that about him. What she doesn’t love is when he breaks his promises to her, either because he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends, he’s having too much fun, or because he doesn’t want his friends to think he’s being controlled by his wife.
In today’s example, Jack is in the doghouse and won’t get out by offering a quick and sheepish (dogish?) “Sorry.” For any apology to be meaningful, it needs to include real repair which—according to the Gottman Institute—is an essential skill to master if you want to be in healthy relationship.
Weeks ago, Shaya told him about an award she was receiving and asked him to put the date on his calendar so he could go with her to the awards banquet. The night before the banquet, a buddy called and invited Jack to go fishing the following morning. The plan was to leave the house by 6 AM and be back by noon. This sounded perfect.
Although in theory this plan would work, Shaya was worried. She wanted to say yes, but she knew from experience that once Jack and his buddies started fishing, they had a hard time stopping.
“I don’t mind you going,” she said, “but you have to promise to quit early. I don’t want to be stressed-out before the banquet wondering if you’ll make it home in time.”
“I promise to be back before noon, so you can relax for the rest of the day.”
The next morning, Jack’s friend showed up 45 minutes later than planned. There was still time to go fishing and be back by noon, but Jack knew it would be tight. To keep his promise to be back before noon meant they would have to quit fishing an hour earlier.
But they didn’t quit an hour earlier. They quit 45 minutes earlier and then got caught in road construction. By the time Jack got home, Shaya had already left for the banquet.
Knowing he had blown it, Jack threw on some clothes and had his buddy drop him off at the banquet. As luck would have it, he sat down| moments before Shaya got up to accept her award.
By that time, Shaya wanted nothing to do with him. Not only did Jack break his promise, but he hadn’t showered and looked like he had just wandered in off the street.
The dinner was a disaster and the ride home was worse.
“Do not talk to me,” Shaya said to him. “And just so you know, I don’t ever want to hear your excuse for not being home by noon.”
Okay, so what’s the way back for Jack?
There’s nothing Jack can do to erase the facts. He promised he would be home before noon and he wasn’t. Not only did he break his promise by not being home on time. He didn’t call Shaya to say he’d be late so she didn’t worry that he might have drowned or been in an accident. He just showed up at the last possible moment looking like a rumpled mess.
What Jack would like to do is explain to Shaya why he was late: He left in time, but got Shaya about the road construction,
But explaining won’t help. When you break a promise, it doesn’t matter that you meant well. It doesn’t matter that you were caught in traffic. The only thing that matters is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them.
For example, if you accidentally run over my dog because it got off its leash, I don’t want to hear a lecture about what a bad dog owner I am for not controlling my dog. What I want is for you to stop your car and run out into the street to see if there’s any way to save him, If there is, I want you to do it, and no matter what happens next, I want to hear how sorry you are and how terrible you feel about my poor dog.
When you break a promise, your reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them, and believes that you are going to do whatever you can to repair the damage, as quickly as possible.
The Sorry card was designed to teach you how to apologize effectively, without making excuses, or explaining how or why you did what you did. The only time the other person is going to care why you did something that hurt them is after they believe you understand how your behavior affected them, and that you want to do something to show that you get it.
For example, say you forget to pick up your child because you forgot which day she had soccer. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. But that little person standing all alone in her blue knee-highs may be scared, or angry, or be feeling like you didn’t love her enough to remember. The point is, an apology is about them, not you. So don’t be quick to explain. Or add a ‘but…’ to your Sorry.
Here is the start of the Sorry card Jack might have written, using the Sorry card from the Express Yourself Ecard app. As you can see, nowhere does he defend or explain his reasons. His first priority is to acknowledge his screw-up and take full responsibility for it. And because it can be sent via email, even if Shaya’s not ready to talk to him, she probably would be curious to read a heartfelt Sorry if it dinged her on her iPhone.