Recently I had a long conversation, walking in the countryside. My friend, A, was seething about another friend, B, letting him down.
And not for the first time, he said.
In response to an email from B containing news of the latest let-down, A had fired off an angry email of his own, and now B was angry with him, about that.
I felt sure that if they didn't resolve this quickly it would turn into a long-term, smouldering resentment or cold hatred. Nobody would win. And as a friend of them both, I would be in an awkward spot.
“Please, don't go to sleep on this without trying to make it good,” I said.
“Oh, I don't believe in that crap,” said A.
Tentatively, I asked what he thought might be the effect of his email. He didn't care: maybe he shouldn't have sent it, but it was nothing compared with the monstrous behaviour of B, who never seemed to be there for him.
I wondered if he might apologise to B all the same. Just say sorry for what you've written, so that it might be possible to talk about other things.
“But B never apologises! Never! Why should I?!”
If you apologise, I suggested, B might learn from your example. He might feel obliged to offer an apology of his own. He might not. But even if he doesn't, you will have got rid of this awful feeling, which you don't appear to be enjoying. You will have got the problem “off your desk”. The next move would have to come from B.
He had a powerful resistance to the idea of apologising – as we all have, at times like that. But what exactly is that resistance? Is it the pain of acknowledging fault? Of being in the wrong? Whatever it was, felt like a great weight that we both staggered beneath as we walked slowly on, oblivious to the wintry trees around us, the mud underfoot, the fading daylight.
My poor friend A was burning with anger, and I felt uncomfortable in the warmth of it.
I hated it. In fact, I felt so uncomfortable that I found myself doing what I would usually avoid. I begged A to apologise to B. “Please, do it for my sake!” I said. “You have done something specific that you know was wrong. Please, at least apologise for that.”
A was staring at his phone as I said this.
“Do it now!” I urged.
He didn't reply, but started to type. His jaw was clenched. He didn't look at me. How to read this? Was he angry with me, now? Or just ignoring me as he whipped himself up? What was he writing now? Who to?
Having finished typing, he thrust the phone at me. “Read it!”
It was a clean apology to B. I was impressed. Great, I said. Thank you.
He pressed send. And immediately the heaviness lifted. We walked on. B quickly replied, with gratitude and a friendly tone (but no apology), making it possible for them to start talking again.
What is a clean apology?
When a disagreement flares up, you can't do anything to make the other person apologise. And if you insist that their apology is necessary before you apologise, for whatever you have done, nobody gets anywhere. Somebody has to make the first move.
And an apology only lands well if it's clean. If you say, “I'm sorry, but…” people will probably only hear what comes after the but. And that's not likely to be something they want. Most often, if there's a but, it contains one of the following:
1. A renewed statement of grievance
“I'm sorry I called you that, but you really annoyed me.”
This puts you back in the midst of the unhappiness and disagreement.
2. Unrelated self-justification
“I'm sorry I missed the meeting, but I'm really busy today.”
This diminishes any sense that you are genuinely sorry. The apology looks insincere.
If you know you should apologise, don't be surprised that you don't want to. Of course you don't! There's always a huge resistance to admitting that we're wrong. So notice the resistance, laugh at yourself, and do it anyway.
You won't look weak, you will look strong.