Apologizing is much more than saying you’re sorry, Dave Kaiser writes—it’s saying you care.
I would like to address the flip side of Guilt: the Apology. A lot of men struggle with apologies. In the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Wayne’s character says, “Never apologize and never explain—it’s a sign of weakness.” Many men, wanting to appear strong, have taken this attitude on. To what effect, though? My experience has been that when I make a mistake and then fail to own it and fix, it hurts the other person, it hurts me, and it hurts our relationship, so everyone suffers. This is doubly true when we are dealing with the women in our lives.
So what’s going on? Bottom line is that many men believe they have to earn love, and that if they make a mistake or do something wrong, they risk not being worthy of love, and that’s too scary to deal with. Admitting a mistake means facing shame in a healthy way, and many men simply can’t or won’t do that. So they “stick to their guns,” damage important personal and business relationships, and find themselves living a state of constant resentment, at others and from others. They also live out of integrity. This is not acceptable. Mumbling a sheepish, half-hearted, little-boy “sorry” won’t cut it either. The world needs better.
So what do we need to do differently?
There are two possibilities. One is, you actually did something and it hurt the other person. Your intentions do not matter here. Allow me to repeat, YOUR INTENTIONS DO NOT MATTER! You promised to finish a report by 5 p.m. Thursday and you didn’t. You said you would be home at 6:30 for dinner and you came in at 7:15, due to traffic (which was out of your control, right?). You agreed to take out the trash and you forgot. In each of these situations, regardless of your intentions, the result is that you failed to keep your word. This failure may have caused a problem for the other person, and at the very least, it demonstrated that you are not trustworthy, because you didn’t keep your commitment. What are you going to do? Blow it off, so that you don’t show weakness? Argue with the other person that it was no big deal? Get mad at them for getting mad at you? (I have personally done all of these, numerous times.) Is that what a “real man” does? No. A BOY runs away. A MAN cleans up his messes. Here’s what you do instead.
Own your mistake. State the commitment and state what you did instead. “Honey, I said I would take the trash out, and I didn’t, so you had to do it yourself” or “Boss, I said I would have that report on your desk this morning and it’s not ready yet.” Then ask the other person what the impact was on them, and listen closely, and for God’s sake (and yours) don’t try to argue or minimize it, just shut up and listen. Next, fix the problem if you can (the report is still due) or offer to do something to make amends if you can’t (your wife already took out the trash, but she hasn’t done the dishes yet). Lastly, come up with a plan to prevent this sort of thing again, and tell the other person: “Boss, next time, I’ll put it in my calendar to start that project a week in advance” or “Sweetie, next time you ask me to take out the trash, I’ll do it right away if I can, or make a note in my to-do list and then be sure to follow through.” Then be sure to do it! This demonstrates that you value your relationship with that person, and it shows that you take your commitments seriously. That’s what a man does. Screw John Wayne.
So what if it’s not your “fault?” Traffic was unexpectedly heavy. A client called you and you dropped everything to deal with it. Your plane was delayed. Someone on your staff didn’t finish their part of the report. That’s not your “fault,” right? It doesn’t matter. Men don’t play blame games; men take responsibility. When you make a commitment, you want people to believe you will make good on it. If “sh*t happens,” like traffic or snow or crazy clients, and you can’t keep that commitment, you take full responsibility and proactively reach out to the other person as soon as you can, and make the situation right as discussed above. If sh*t keeps happening, more often than you would like, you are somehow being unrealistic and you will need to arrange more reasonable deadlines, or maybe just say no. There is a wonderful Scottish proverb: “Promising but not delivering is worse than refusing.” If you can’t deliver, say so. The other person may be angry, upset, sad, but at least you have told the truth and they know where they stand. Accepting an unrealistic agreement to make them or yourself feel better only means that you and they will feel much worse later. Not good.
OK, what if it’s the other person’s “fault?” Here is where you have to look at yourself closely. In this sort of situation, it’s rarely black and white, where one person is right and one is wrong. Usually, even if the other person did something glaringly wrong, you contributed to the problem too. Think about the last fight you had with your wife/girlfriend. She may have “started it,” but you picked up the ball and ran with it, right? Yeah, I thought so. Look for something you did wrong. Or maybe even something you could have done better. You have to clean that up, and you do it without waiting for the other person. You know you made a mistake, even if the other person won’t admit theirs (and they may not). You clean up your own messes. Integrity comes from the inside.
So, it may feel bad to have to cop to all these screw-ups and then fix them, but the payoff is that the people around you will start to see you as someone they can count on, and you will see yourself this way. You word will be as good as gold. You will be trustworthy, you will respect yourself more, and others will respect you more too. You will be a leader, a man of integrity, a man who follows through, to the benefit of his superiors, partners, direct reports, wife, family, and community, you will be a man that people, including yourself, count on.
Whew, hard work, right? Yes, and totally worth the effort. What’s the alternative? Being irresponsible, making messes that others need to clean up. The people around you get tired of this, quickly.
So what is the other possibility? Maybe you didn’t do anything “wrong,” but your wife/girlfriend is really upset. Dara McKinley, quoting Allison Armstrong, wrote that “Nothing (NOTHING) soothes a woman like the words ‘I am sorry I hurt your feelings.’” (This post is totally worth the read—thanks Dara, you are emotionally brilliant!) So, what I am suggesting, and this may seem radical to many, is that you apologize any time your wife’s / girlfriend’s feelings are hurt, regardless of fault, blame, guilt or lack thereof. Dara’s words sum this up best: “This sentence ['I’m sorry I hurt your feelings'] was MAGIC to the feminine essence and not because it meant I did anything wrong. It meant I loved, respected, and acknowledged that I affected her.” Maybe you know what you did, maybe you don’t (in which case I suggest you think about it a bit), maybe whatever you did isn’t your “fault” and her upset feelings seem bizarre to you (you moved the coffee table and she tripped over it, not your fault, right? It’s hers!). Maybe you don’t think you did anything at all.
Apologize anyway, and do it from a place of love, not from an empty place of placating her. People can sense it when you are patronizing them, and they hate it. So, there is no Shame, no Blame, no Guilt, just Responsibility. You know you are doing your best in the world. You know you are a man of your word. You are proud of yourself. And you are strong enough to say the words your wife/girlfriend needs to hear to feel better about you, herself, and your relationship. It will feel awful the first few times you do it, I can promise you that. But when you see her calm down, you will know it’s worth it.
So, how does a man handle apologies? When he has made a mistake, he owns it and cleans it up. When his wife/girlfriend is upset, maybe he did something, maybe he didn’t, he checks in with her to see if he needs to clean up a mess he made. Even if he didn’t make a mess, he apologizes for hurting her feelings because that shows her love and respect, and contrary to his boyish fears, it doesn’t diminish him, it makes him bigger, stronger, and more loving.