Speaker and trainer, Dr. Rick Brinkman explains the art of the apology through a relatable example between a mother and daughter.
In my 30 years of focusing on human communication and interactions, I have found that the way people try to apologize tends to backfire more often then not and actually make things worse.
Communication is like a phone number. You need all the digits and you need them in the right order. In this article, you’ll learn not only what it takes to apologize effectively, but also to recognize and avoid the number one obstacle that blocks your apology.
Do You Dextify?
The huge mistake people make when trying to apologize is called “dextifying“. This is a made-up term that stands for “defend,” “explain,” and “justify.” Here is how it might look in a dictionary:
To defend, explain, or justify while claiming to apologize.
To hold oneself as blameless for a variety of reasons.
To have a good excuse for actions that produced mental or emotional distress in others.
The goal of an apology is to move toward a positive future. But dextifying is about the past which just mires you back in the quicksand of past misunderstanding. When you dextify you do have positive intentions however, it rarely delivers the positive result you intended.
You must be conscious of what dextifying so you can resist the natural inclination to do it.
Take this real-life example: Marilyn refused to talk to her adult daughter Jennifer, despite her daughter’s repeated attempts to apologize for a misunderstanding. The problem started during a phone call, when Marilyn told her daughter how unappreciated she felt. Jennifer, who was extremely stressed, blurted, “Oh Mom, please, I hate it when you do this martyr trip.” With those words, Jennifer stepped onto an emotional minefield that dated back to her parents’ divorce twenty years before.
Over the next six months, Jennifer tried to apologize numerous times, explaining she was stressed out, worried about her child and feeling overwhelmed, but her mother was unmoved. Jennifer resigned herself to never speak to her mother again.
Apologize without Dextifying
Note that when Jennifer tried to explain her intentions, it was so her mother would understand the underlying strain that caused her to snap. However, from Marilyn’s point of view, her daughter’s explanations just sounded like excuses for treating her badly.
While the intentions behind dextifying are good ones, they focus on the reasons for a behavior while ignoring the impact of the behavior. The apology is more about the “reasons and excuses” of the person who is apologizing, rather than being about the feelings of the person receiving the apology.
In the example, Jennifer apologized many times but failed because of dextification. In explaining her own behavior, she unintentionally blamed her mother for being offended. Jennifer’s well-intended apologies all had an “I’m sorry, but” tendency. Every time Marilyn heard the “but…” she stopped listening. Jennifer defended what she did because she meant no harm. Marilyn met all of this with the cold shoulder.
If you want to apologize successfully, fight your urge to dextify. You don’t have to take the other party’s side or accept the blame, but do empathize with them and be sincerely sorry for actions that caused distress:
“I am really sorry you felt I wasn’t being understanding.”
An apology is not an admission of guilt; it just offers consolation for the misunderstanding without taking the blame. People often apologize for innocent actions and words that ended up being misunderstood. Apologies are a way to acknowledge that your words or actions hurt someone unintentionally.
Four Steps to a Successful Apology
Here’s the recipe for a successful apology.
- Let the other person know that you care about them and the relationship. Place the value of the relationship above anything else.
- Apologize without dextifying and without taking blame. It is about them, not you. i.e. “I’m sorry about what happened at that meeting.”
- Wait for them to respond and listen to their response when it comes. If they talk about the past, let them, but don’t do it yourself. (Hearing and understanding them must take precedence over your reaction.)
- When it’s your turn to speak just set a new direction for the relationship that makes a fresh start on a foundation of mutual positive intent.
When I saw Jennifer as a patient she had already given up on her mom and never see her again because she had tried so hard to apologize, only to be rebuffed. Yet at the same time she felt, “What if something dreadful happens and I never again have the opportunity to speak to my mother?”
I coached her on how to correctly apologize and she realized she had yet to see this from her mother’s point of view. She was stuck in trying to explain away her own guilt. Jennifer suddenly understood what she had to do.
As soon as she got home she made a call. “Mom, I have a business trip coming up to your city and you’re the first person I want to see. I’m may be here on business, but the most important business is making sure you know how much I love you.” She told her mom how much she had missed talking with her these last six months, how sorry she was for the misunderstanding, and her mom’s anger melted away.
I would also suggest that before apologizing, conduct a few mental rehearsals practicing what you want to say and definitely practicing resisting the urge to dextify. That way, you’ll have a stronger sense what you want to say and why … and you’ll be more likely to have your apology accepted.
Watch Dr. Rick demonstrate the Art of Apology with his two cats, teaching Neelix how to apologize and Leela for stealing her soccer ball: https://www.drrickbrinkman.com/blog-09/2019/9/9/the-art-of-the-apology