A [Not So] Better Way To Say Sorry

“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.

For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Cor. 7:9-10)

"Empathy is one of human beings’ highest qualities. Empathy is the root of most of the behaviour that we associate with “goodness.” It’s the root of compassion and altruism, self-sacrifice and charity. Conversely, a lack of empathy is the root of most destructive and violent behaviour — in fact, everything that we associate with “evil.” A lack of empathy with victims makes crime possible. A lack of empathy with other human groups makes warfare possible. A lack of empathy enables psychopaths to treat other human beings callously, as objects who have no value except as a means of satisfying their desires." —Steve Taylor Ph.D., "Out of the Darkness Understanding Empathy Shallow and Deep Empathy"

Empathy is a powerful tool for connecting with others and protecting ourselves from emotionally destructive people. Empathy is a difficult and ambiguous attribute to teach, especially to children. A good educator is skilled at taking the complex and simplifying it for their students. However, in the case of empathy and emotional connection, I am concerned the oversimplification has done more harm than good.

Aside from examples established by adults and peers, children are first taught how to empathize with others through apologies. The steps to apologies are intended to create an emotional awareness in the individual and those affected by their behavior. This should be a beautiful and essential part of a child's development. Parents, educators and psychologists have all come up with various steps to meaningfully outline an effective apology. There appears to be a variety of steps and approaches that become popular. Some try to simplify the steps to add new clarity or life to the process of empathy. But in the simplifying, I believe authors are unfortunately teaching something other than empathy, as in the following case.

On March 30, 2014, "joellen" published “A Better Way to Say Sorry.” This post quickly made its rounds on the bloggersphere. A year after it was published, it is still frequently making its appearance on Facebook and other social media. It’s a well-written post with an intriguing idea. I applaud joellen's insight regarding needing a better way to say sorry. This is a neglected concept that is very difficult to teach children. I also applaud the author for taking on this concept and sincerely trying to improve how we teach children to empathize.

I agree that the old way of demanding others to say sorry is wrong, and I deeply appreciate the author’s intent to foster greater personal responsibility. However, I believe and feel the four steps she outlines don't promote responsibility, but rather unhealthy communication, expectations and obligatory communication. I will give my take on her article.

Step one:

"I’m sorry for…: Be specific. Show the person you’re apologizing to that you really understand what they are upset about.

Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.

Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

This first step is critical, there is profound value in being specific with our words. This shows ownership and clarity. However, I would add to the step, "Learn to say sorry without saying the word sorry.”

This could be in words or deeds. It's not about the word "sorry." There is nothing wrong with the word sorry, but it easily becomes a trite phrase — a quick and repetitive way to acknowledge (or dismiss) your mistakes. It sometimes misses an opportunity to connect and learn from the experience. I believe this is what the author is trying to do in step two but misses the point.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles pointed out, “Pride prefers cheap repentance, paid for with shallow sorrow. Unsurprisingly, seekers after cheap repentance also search for superficial forgiveness instead of real reconciliation. Thus, real repentance goes far beyond simply saying, ‘I’m sorry.’” (“Repentance,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 31)

Step two:

"This is wrong because…:

This might take some more thinking, but this is one of the most important parts. Until you understand why it was wrong or how it hurt someone’s feelings, it’s unlikely you will change. This is also important to show the person you hurt that you really understand how they feel. I can’t tell you how much of a difference this makes! Sometimes, people want to feel understood more than they want an apology. Sometimes just showing understanding– even without an apology– is enough to make them feel better!

Wrong: This is wrong because I got in trouble.

Right: This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and made you feel bad about yourself." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

The author is not teaching responsibility in this step. It communicating a very emotionally manipulative message, which makes the offender responsible for the other’s emotions. In the example, that was provided:

"Wrong: This is wrong because I got in trouble."

"Right: This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and made you feel bad about yourself."

On the surface, these seem to be two very different experiences. But they are essentially the same. Here's how they are the same: the "right" example is just an emotional version of the the "wrong" example.

In the "wrong" example, the offender is sorry because they were caught. In the "right" example, the offender is sorry because someone is visually, emotionally hurt about the incident. In a way, this a a form of being caught. If the offended never acknowledged there hurt, the offender might not have recognized their behavior was inappropriate. This approach bases awareness on another person's reaction to an event. Neither of these examples teach a child the internal values of integrity, empathy, self-awareness or the ability to know right from wrong. Rather, they identify whether or not their actions were hurtful by another’s response; in a way, this is an emotional form of being caught, which is a form of emotional manipulation.

The emotional manipulation comes at the moment we decide an apology is needed based on another’s emotional response — NOT on whether our words or actions were wrong. You might be thinking, “What's the difference?” or that it’s semantics, or “That's just silly, other people's emotions matter.” Absolutely, other people's emotions are valid and do matter. We should never desire to hurt or ignore someone. Even more so, we should learn how to empathize. But hurt feelings are not a reliable indicator that you did something wrong. It is equally important for the offended to practice empathy in difficult situations too.

Let's look at this example. After a long day at work, I am hungry, tired and discouraged about my day's performance. Unfortunately, two people on separate occasions interact with me during which I am short in my communication, distracted and maybe come across as rude. It's been a difficult day; it had nothing to do with these two individuals. However, one responds very hurt, angry and emotional that I would treat them in such a way. The other brushes it off and recognizes I was possibly having a bad day and this behavior is out of character for me and even finds a way to help.

But in step two, the author is suggesting we would only say sorry to the first person because they were hurt and emotional, but not the other. That is wrong and teaching an unhealthy lesson. It might be that the emotionally reactive and hurt individual is the one who needs to apologize for being self-centered and unaware of the other’s bad day and their needing some private time or words of encouragement. Step two ignored that completely.

Step three:

"In the future, I will…:Use positive language, and tell me what you WILL do, not what you won’t do.

Wrong: In the future, I will not say that.

Right: In the future, I will keep unkind words in my head.

Now let’s practice using positive language. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get better. Can anyone think of a positive way to change these incorrect statements?

Wrong: In the future, I won’t cut.

(Right: In the future, I will go to the back of the line.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t push.

(Right: In the future, I will keep my hands to myself.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t take your eraser.

(Right: In the future, I will ask you if I can borrow your eraser.)" —A Better Way to Say Sorry

This is an entirely different process and should not be a part of the "sorry" process. Promising to never do something again is misguided. It’s setting the offender up for failure. It’s suggesting that a person can never have a bad day, and if they slip or repeat, there is shame, distrust and resentment. It continues a manipulative cycle. A current "sorry" should never be predicated on future promise! 

Step four: 

"Will you forgive me? This is important to try to restore your friendship. Now, there is no rule that the other person has to forgive you. Sometimes, they won’t. That’s their decision. Hopefully, you will all try to be the kind of friends who will forgive easily, but that’s not something you automatically get just because you apologized. But you should at least ask for it." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

We cannot "forgive" anyone. Neither should we ever base our sorry's effectiveness off of another's inability or ability to forgive. It's not their place. Only God can forgive. Although there is appropriateness in certain types of "righteous judgement," Elder Oaks clarifies this is only in cases of stewardship and is not to be guided by anger.

"Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest ...

Third, to be righteous, an intermediate judgment must be within our stewardship. We should not presume to exercise and act upon judgments that are outside our personal responsibilities." —Elder Dallin H. Oaks Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Judge Not”

The atonement and principles of repentance teach us that we don't say sorry to be forgiven. This is worldly sorrow. We are forgiven because we have a change of heart. Otherwise it's selfish: “I am feeling bad and want you to forgive me so I feel better” or "I want to you stop feeling bad so I am apologizing." It is not up to us how or if another will forgive, and we don’t repent or say sorry to be forgiven of that individual. It defeats the point and again sends a very wrong message to both the offender and offended. This is a form of worldly sorrow —an attempt to end another's pain so it doesn't hurt so much, or a means to meet an emotional criteria or demands of another to qualify as an apology.

“And it came to pass that when I, Mormon, saw their lamentation and their mourning and their sorrow before the Lord, my heart did begin to rejoice within me, knowing the mercies and the long-suffering of the Lord, therefore supposing that he would be merciful unto them that they would again become a righteous people.

But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.

And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. Nevertheless they would struggle with the sword for their lives.” (Mormon 2: 12-14)

What needs to happen is an internal recognition, a change of heart.

“Paul taught that ‘godly sorrow’ is required if true repentance is to take place (2 Corinthians 7:10). As you study 2 Corinthians 7, consider the following words of President Ezra Taft Benson: ‘It is not uncommon to find men and women in the world who feel remorse for the things they do wrong. Sometimes this is because their actions cause them or loved ones great sorrow and misery. Sometimes their sorrow is caused because they are caught and punished for their actions. Such worldly feelings do not constitute “godly sorrow.”’ (2 Corinthians 7:10)

Godly sorrow is a gift of the Spirit. It is a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God. It is the sharp and keen awareness that our behavior caused the Savior, He who knew no sin, even the greatest of all, to endure agony and suffering. Our sins caused Him to bleed at every pore. This very real mental and spiritual anguish is what the scriptures refer to as having ‘a broken heart and contrite spirit’ (D&C 20:37). Such a spirit is the absolute prerequisite for true repentance” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 72).

So, how do you teach personal responsibility and the "sorry" process. My suggestion is to approach it in an entirely different way. DO NOT focus on the person who offended or did the wrong. This is where it takes trust, creativity and self-worth. Focus on the individual who was hurt. Help them to articulate their experience, take responsibility for their emotional experience as opposed to expecting an apology, and learn how to not be defined by the poor actions/words of others to affect their self-worth.

My wife and I came up with many great examples of this — from 3-year-olds to adults. That would require greater detail. But in short, it was interesting as I read the post and I confirmed with my wife, I have never demanded or asked our children to say sorry; I never realized it till now. I think that whole approach, even this four-step approach is obligatory. But, again I think the focus or teaching moment needs to be on identifying self-worth and how to respond appropriately to those who do harm, not the other way around. This is KEY.

May I add, that whole experience at the end of the article with having a student come up with things they should be or can be sorry for was, I trust, in the best of intentions — but not healthy at all. I understand it was a "good" experience for the author and students. However, it's like this. My wife and I are very happy and loving with each other. We have not had an argument ever let alone a fight. I can sit with her and think of a hand full of things to apologize for, despite our great love and relationship together. This is how it might go:

"Honey, I woke up late and ran to the office and I know I told you I would do the trash and dishes before I left, I am sorry." She would look at me and say (because I know what she would say ). “Oh sweet heart, thank you it wasn't a big deal. I know you were busy.” This was a good experience. I was honest and it gave us a moment together a hug and kiss. Right?

There are a couple issues here, I can always think of something to apologize for. In the above example, as my wife pointed out, there was nothing to apologize for. It created a need that wasn't previously there. It actually replaced something more significant: trust. My wife trusted that I didn't intend to "fail." In fact, she didn't see it as a failure at all and needed NO apology. The other issue is it creates anxiety, wondering, looking and finding ways to apologize or room to always do better. It destroys trust and creates an expectation.

I trust that my wife will take responsibility for her emotions and experiences. If she feels my need to help around the house more, I trust she will loving discuss it with me. At the same time, she trusts that I will respond responsibly and understand her need, saying thank you for sharing and desiring to help. No apologies needed, just healthy, honest communication. It is better to teach self-worth, healing and trust then obligatory apologies.