Reality Check: Perspectives on Apologies

Have you ever said or done something thoughtless that ended up hurting somebody you care deeply about? If so, join the club! Whether it was a massive error or a minor blunder, we’re human and are known to make mistakes. But after the deed is done, then what? We can take action only in the present, and as much as we might want to undo what we did, we can’t.

Apologizing can sometimes help make things better for both of you. While it may be satisfying for the person you have wronged to receive your apology, it may be even more satisfying for you to offer it.

In an apology situation, there are two perspectives worth considering. The first is the perspective of the person who has been wronged. The second perspective is that of the person who has committed the wrong.

Millie is known to have a generous nature. Still, her daughter Margaret was speechless when her mom told her that she had given away her late father’s watch. Margaret had always been fond of her dad’s watch, and had assumed it would be hers someday. Even more insulting was that Millie hadn’t given it to someone who would cherish it; it went to a young client at a charity where Millie volunteers. The client disappeared; the watch is gone forever.

Margaret chose to let some time pass before she spoke with her mom about how hurt she feels at the loss of the watch. She wonders if her mother was trying to send her some kind of deeper message, such as that she’s “moving on” from grieving her late husband. Who knows?

When Margaret finally built up the courage to discuss the watch with her mother, she was amazed by what she heard.

“I didn’t know you’d be upset. That young man could use it, and I couldn’t. In fact, I thought you’d appreciate that I’m cleaning out some of my clutter!”

When Millie realized that this action had hurt Margaret and led her to believe that she no longer valued her father’s belongings, she chose to apologize.

Millie’s remorse was heartfelt. “I had no idea that you wanted the watch. If I’d known, I would never have given it away. I am so sorry that I didn’t think to discuss it with you.”

Through her apology, Millie wanted Margaret to understand that she had not meant to hurt her. Millie viewed the watch as an insignificant trinket, and it simply hadn’t occurred to her that Margaret would see it in another way.

Millie and Margaret then had a productive discussion. For the first time, they discussed what, to each of them, makes an object valuable and worth keeping.

The apology and the ensuing discussion helped both mother and daughter, as it ultimately led to a deeper understanding and better relationship between Millie and Margaret.

In this situation, Millie’s apology was an effective relationship-builder. Unfortunately, every apology is not so satisfying. Next column, I’ll take a look at situations where apologies don’t prove to be so effective.

Have you had satisfying experiences with giving or receiving apologies?

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