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Apologies in NVC

Apologies are often associated with shame, defensiveness, justification and no real connection or healing.

Still, you like to hear people say they are sorry. Why? My guess is you want to know that the other cares about you and therefore cares about whether your needs were met or not by their action. You are also hoping that if they say sorry they will be avoid that same behavior in the future.  Unfortunately when someone offers an apology out of guilt, shame, or defensiveness the likelihood that she or he will understand better how to meet your needs in the future is pretty low.  The more likely outcome is avoidance and a quiet harboring of guilt and/or resentment.

An apology that has a better chance of creating healing and behavior change includes the following:

NVC Apology  

1.  Offer empathy for the specific behavior of yours that stimulated specific feelings and needs in the other (this means you are listening to the other rather going into an explanation of why you did what you did).
    "When I (your specific behavior), I am guessing you felt ______ because it didn't meet your needs for______?"

2.  Express your own regret that your behavior didn't meet needs for the other and s/he is hurting.
     "Seeing how my actions have affected you, I feel regret and sadness because I care about you."

3.  When the other person is ready, offer clarity about the feelings and needs alive for you when you did whatever you did, and the thinking and intention you had.
      "When I made the decision to do what I did, I was hoping to meet needs for _______."

4.Offer a commitment to doing something different in a future similar situation.  This is a specific do-able request for yourself that you share with the other person to make sure the same needs are met in the future.  There may be some back and forth and negotiation around what actions would best meet needs in the future.
      "Next time we are in this situation, I commit to__________"

Here's an example from a dialogue I had. In this example, I've included the internal and external events that happen between the observable expressions of empathy and honesty.

Friend: I'm feeling frustrated and angry hearing you didn't do the shopping for the trip.

Me: (internal jackal show: "Oh man, here we go. He's going to make a big deal of this.")

Me: (getting defensive and trying to mollify the situation) "It's no big deal. I can go tonight. I will have plenty of time. It won't take long."

Friend: "I'm still frustrated."

Me: (Self-empathy: Internally I notice the tension in me rise and feel the defensiveness. I acknowledge my needs for harmony and ease are not being met. I see that he needs empathy.)

Me: (Empathy- this is the beginnig of an NVC apology) "You're feeling frustrated because you need trust?"

Friend: "Yes, this isn't the first time you haven't done what you said you were going to do when we were planning a trip."

Me: (Internal jackal show: "He's judging me! Grrrr! He should trust me! He doesn't appreciate the work I do in this organization." I notice the jackal show and the anger arising from it.)

Me: (Internal Self-empathy: "Okay I'm reacting. It's painful because acceptance and respect are so important to me in this relationship. I want connection here."   After connecting with myself I have space to offer him empathy.)

Me: (Empathy-continuing step 1 of a NVC apology) "Predictability around the work we do in this organization is really important to you?"

Friend: "Yes. I feel angry and resentful. I notice I am having this thought that you are flaky."

Me: (Internal Self-empathy: I notice the word flaky triggers me. I feel hurt rise up through my chest. I feel anger and want to lash out. I know I can't give empathy from this state.)

Me: (Honest expression): "I feel hurt hearing the word flaky. That's really triggering for me because I'm needing understanding. Could you say your feelings and needs instead of judgments?"

Friend: "No. I need to express what's going on for me."

Me: (Internal Self-empathy: I take about 10 minutes in silence. I connect with my feelings of disappointment and hurt and my needs for understanding and acceptance. I see that we could veer onto another thread of discussion if I follow up on my request. I realize that it's important to go back to the original event rather than getting caught in an argument about expressing judgments or not expressing them.)

Me: (Internal Self-empathy: I take time to get clear on what happened in my decision not to do the shopping that afternoon, and what feelings and needs were up for me then and are up for me now regarding that decision.)

Me: (Honest expression - step 2 of a NVC apology): "When I think about how my behavior didn't meet your needs or my own need for integrity, I feel regret and disappointment because I care about creating trust with regard to our agreements."

"Are you willing to hear what was going for me today?"

Friend:  "Okay"

Me: (step 3 of a NVC apology):  "When I think about my decisions today. I observe that I made a conscious choice to spend more time with my sister and not do the shopping. When I think about her being absent from my life for seven years, I feel grateful to have time with her. It's so important to me to care for her and nourish the connection we have." 

Me: (step 4 of a NVC apology) "I am committed to attending to needs for trust, order, and mutuality around our work projects together.  Next time, I commit to double checking my schedule before I tell you when I will do something and checking in with you first if I want to make a change."

Me: (Connecting request) What comes up for you hearing that?"

This dialogue took a few more exchanges of empathy and honest expression to reach connection and clarity.

Regardless of the twists and turns of an interaction you can come back to the four steps mentioned above with perhaps many pauses for self-empathy along the way.

This week look for situations in which you can practice offering a NVC apology.  Offering an apology doesn't have to be shaming and reactive.  When you start to regularly offer NVC apologies for little ways you don't meet someone's needs you will find that you enjoy the peace and connection these exchanges create.

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3 Responses

  1. Apr 13, 2012

    Great! mat I translate the four steps that you outlined into Hebrew? Thanks for this it's a great reminder not to feel the shame I often do...

  2. Apr 14, 2012

    Thank you for this guidance. In all my NVC reading and classes, I do not recall ever getting such detailed guidance on apologies. I now feel encouraged to give more effective apologies when they are needed, and help others give NVC apologies. My needs for growth and learning and emotional safety have all been met by your sharing.

  3. Mar 18, 2017
    Kristina Yates


    I have a friend who often requests apologies from people saying she wants people to be accountable for their behavior. I have never asked someone for an apology because that never occurs to me. I don't think asking for an apology is always effective and would like a way to explain that to my friend. Do you have any suggestions or thoughts about asking people to apologize? Thanks.

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