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The Power of Apology

AsingleredroseI'm sorry.

The very words carry more weight than the human condition can hold imaginable in its finite mindset of the zero-sum game.  "Apologize?  I'd rather die."  And so we do.  Little by little.

Two very different events happened this year in close proximity to each other, each involving apologies (or lack thereof), and they both greatly impressed on me the power that these two simple words have on our relationships with others as well as our own character and emotional health.

Some very shaggy trees in our backyard prompted me to hire a tree service to come and address the problem.  In the process of talking to the tree service owner, it came to light that he and I had gone to school together, both of us having graduated well over 20 years ago.  (NOTE TO HIGH SCHOOLERS:  In 20 years, nobody will probably recognize you anyway.  Quit getting so caught up in your looks.)  We finished up the business of scoping out trees and branches and limbs, and as we were entering my sunroom he turned and said, "You know, I know we were in a few classes together over the years, and I may not have always treated you very nicely back then.  I want you to know I'm sorry for having done that."  You could have knocked me over with a feather.  Complete.  Honest.  Sincere.  It wasn't a ploy that the kid he may have teased or picked in back in junior high or high school held the checkbook to his next contract.  This was as humble and open-hearted apology as I had heard in a long time.  I simply responded that we were all kids once, but that the apology was noted, appreciated, and accepted.

Around the same time as the tree service incident, a project stakeholder decided to change scope at the last minute, leaving me holding the bag with numerous other project stakeholders.  Because of this person's actions, I had to make some unpopular decisions which ultimately made "Party B" look bad but alleviated the pain for the other stakeholders.  All I received from this individual are tirades and rants about how wronged they felt and how they'd been undermined.  While I was still very upset at them for having done what they did (which in turn made me do what I did), I made a sincere apology to them, telling them honestly why I chose to do what I did, and that I was sorry for any angst it caused them personally.  I doubt they even heard me.

Why don't people in our society apologize more?  Some possible explanations:

  • It shows weakness - as humans we can't help but be vulnerable.  Not one of us is perfect.  But weakness is still frowned upon.
  • It shows we're wrong - not wronged, but wrong.  Outside of my high school US history teacher, I know very few people who arrogantly claim to be right all the time.
  • It shows we're accountable - in our age of "victim mentality" and "entitlement generation" the idea of an apology runs counter to the values being expressed through the media.

Is there anybody in your life who could use a heartfelt apology from you (real or perceived)?  Try it.  Are you waiting on an apology from somebody else?  Let it go.  I would guess my tree service guy and I are both sleeping more soundly at night than Party B is.

Just some thoughts to coast into the weekend...


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» Race through the forest: project management from Sparkplug 9 >> bizhack
I have a major apology to make to Timothy Johnson, author of Race Through the Forest: a Project Management Fable. Weve linked to each others blogs before - hes got some great, great management and business insights - and he sent me... [Read More]


John Koetsier

You know, Timothy, I had a very similar experience about 4 years back, when we built our deck. Funny how it goes, huh?


Being humble and appologizing is sign of weakness today.
But, I often use I'm sorry when someone screams, jells at me, when someone is rude to me and I can't remember a reason why. I appologize because I know I did something to him, either I reminded him on his inadequacy, guilt, or reminded him on someone who did him wrong, or someone he hurt once.
I also appologize to killer for being alive and being witness of his crimes.If it weren't for me he could sleep well, and wouldn't feel guilty or go to jail!!
Well, there are so many reasons for appology.
Belive me, I feel great when I say I'm sorry!

Timothy Johnson

John - amazing how we see these patterns of behavior. Also - referring to your own post - no apology necessary

Natalija - thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights and joining the conversation

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