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Admit It When You Screw Up! – How to Say I’m Sorry

March 15, 2009

Nobody is perfect. I know I’m not! There are times that we get so wrapped up in our own lives that we neglect and upset the people close to us without intending to. I’m going to tell you about a recent example from my own life where I screwed up in one of my friendships, and how I handled the situation.

I was supposed to attend a big birthday celebration for a close girlfriend, but had a couple of things to do before I arrived. Now, I am the first to admit that time management and prioritisation are not my strongest suits. I showed up to my friend’s party about 4 hours late. Needless to say, she was very disappointed and told me she felt like she couldn’t count on me. It’s not exactly a pleasant experience when someone close to brings one of your less-than-desirable traits to your attention. I felt terrible for letting her down.

Let’s examine a couple of ways I could have handled this situation. Suppose I immediately went on the defensive. I might have brushed off her concerns, rationalised my own behaviour by pointing out her own shortcomings, had a big bitch session with my other friends in an attempt to make myself feel better and validate my own point of view, or given her the cold shoulder until she decided it wasn’t worth fighting over.

What effect do you foresee any of the above behaviours having on the friendship? Nothing positive, that’s for sure. Consider this: my friend took a big risk by being honest with me and telling me how she felt. Why? Well, have you ever been faced with the onerous task of initiating a break-up? The situations are comparable. It’s not easy being brutally honest with someone you’re close to. You risk hurting their feelings and bruising their ego, both of which have the potential to end a friendship, or at least shift a friendship onto shaky ground.

Defensiveness would have resulted in my friend getting more frustrated with me and feeling like she was beating her head against a brick wall because I wasn’t making the effort to understand how she was feeling. In time we might have eventually smoothed things over and slipped back into the routine of friendship, but nothing would actually have been resolved. She would continue to harbour that underlying resentment towards me, my ego would still be bruised, and our bond of friendship would gradually weaken.

Now let’s consider the path I actually took. When I realised my friend was upset with me, I sat down and mulled over exactly what she was upset about. Instead of interpreting her honesty as an attack on my ego, I put myself in her shoes and considered how I would have felt if I would have been in her situation. I realised that I too would have felt hurt, disappointed, and let down. I would have been just as upset as what she was. Armed with that understanding, I told my friend that she was absolutely right – there was no excuse for my being late, that I understood her feelings and related them back to the event, and of course, apologized for letting her down and took her to lunch to show I was sorry rather than just telling her.

What is so different about this situation to the first? Well, although my friend was upset, she would immediately have felt more respected, understood, and probably somewhat relieved that I didn’t respond aggressively. I gave her the opportunity to elaborate if she felt there was more to say, and she didn’t feel like she was beating her head against a brick wall trying to drive her point home time and again. By taking the time to understand and empathise, her annoyance subsided, the situation was diffused, and we now have a much stronger friendship because the problem was dealt with in a mature manner.

So, what do you do if you are approached by a friend who is less-than-impressed with you? First of all, don’t get on your high-horse and let fly with a tirade of things that bother you about them! That is ridiculously immature, and if it was bothering you that much then you should have told them so when it actually happened. As I have mentioned previously in Tips for Improving Your Relationship, the purpose of disagreements is not to get ‘one-up’ on the other person. It is about resolving an issue that is detrimental to the relationship. Don’t bring irrelevant issues into the current situation. The only purpose it serves is to escalate the irritation of both parties.

What you do is you sit down, shut up, and listen to what your friend has to say. You may both be upset about something, but give your friend the chance to talk. To begin with, all they want is to be heard and understood. Try to understand what they are upset about. If you can put yourself in their shoes, you will be able to empathise with how they feel. Once they feel that aim is achieved, they will be much more receptive to anything you are concerned about.

I am not advocating becoming a complete pushover every time someone gets upset with you. What I am advocating is that you dissociate from your ego for long enough to understand how another person feels. If you’re in the wrong, admit it. What is more important to you in the long run – saving face, or a genuine, strong connection with another person?

Don’t let your pride get the better of you. Inability to admit fault is a sign of a weak character. Relationships with other people are complicated, and we all make mistakes from time to time – it’s how we learn. Have the courage to say “I’m sorry.” They’re hard words to say, but they are a vital tool in building stronger relationships…and a stronger you.

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