Apologies That Mean Something

"Now say you're sorry!" the teacher demands.

"Sorry!" the student says in a huff and walks away.

I'm guessing you have had an experience like this at one time or another. Apologies are often associated with shaming 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 person cares about you and therefore cares about whether your needs were met or not by their action.

An apology in the framework of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is much more than the words "I'm sorry."  It requires empathy, connecting with the experience of the other, and honest expression - connecting with and expressing your own experience.   In each, you provide clarity about the four connecting points we talk about in NVC called:  Observation, Feeling, Need, & Request.

Here's an example from a recent experience I had. In this example, I've included my internal experieince as well as external events.

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.

FriendI'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 his needs weren't met by my decision and he needs empathyThis is the first step in moving toward a connecting apology)

Me: (Empathy) You're feeling frustrated because you need trust?

FriendYes, 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. I know I am committed to our work together.  After connecting with myself I have space to offer him empathy.)

Me: (Empathy) I'm guessing that predictability in the work we do in this organization is really important to you?

FriendYes. I feel angry and resentful. I notice I am having this thought that you're 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 get 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): 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. When I think about your need for trust not being met along with my own need for integrity around doing what I say I am going to do, I feel regret and disappointment. 

 Me: (Request to myself out loud) I am committed to attending to needs for integrity, trust, and mutuality around our work projects together by double checking my schedule before I tell you when I will do something and by checking in with you if I want to make a change.

 (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 it is important to stay focused on the initial trigger event and stay with these essential elements:

Essential Elements of a Giraffe Apology

Observation - Identify the action that failed to meet needs in clear and neutral terms.

Self-Empathy - If you're reacting with anger, guilt, or defensiveness, around noticing that your actions did'nt meet the needs of someone else, it's important to ask for a pause so that you can go inside and watch your jackal show and honor your own feelings and needs before attempting honest expression or empathy.

Empathy - hear the feelings and needs of the other person. Clarify exactly what they are reacting to, that is what action didn't meet their needs (observation).

Honest Expression - state in observational terms what you did, express your feelings and needs that were not met for you by your action.                                                                                                              

Request - state what you are committed to doing differently in a similar future situation so that needs for both you are met.

Take a moment now to reflect on the last time you apologized to someone.  How would this have sounded following the guidelines above?