The Apology

Art by Donna Estabrooks

“I didn’t mean it when I said I hope the cable in the elevator snaps when you step on board.”

~ Christine Lavin

Thaaaat’s not an apology.

I am not proud to say that I was 29 years old before I discovered I didn’t know how to make a proper apology.

I cannot tell you how I managed to get to that age with such a profound gap in something that’s not just a social grace, but a…you know, as I write this, the phrase that comes to me is “divine grace.”

Dateline 1989: The Canadian Embassy in Washington DC had just opened the doors of its new building at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It was an exciting new destination, and our guests were thrilled by an invitation to any event we hosted there.

You’ve probably hosted more than a few events in your life. Whether you’re putting together a wedding reception, a political fundraiser, or a birthday party for the eight year old who’s allowed to have eight guests, it’s a LOT of work. 

So throw on an overlay of doing an event representing a foreign country in a brand new building where the staff is still working out the standard operating procedures for… well, honestly, absolutely everything from security and parking and name tags and microphones and lighting and program, and catering and wait staff, and some of the innards of the building still aren’t working quite the way they’re supposed to yet.

Anyone running an event was gliding and smiling on the surface and paddling like hell under the water all night.

I was an officer in a unit called the Trade Commissioner Service. We hosted many events to bring together people with the aim of encouraging international business and trade relations between Canada and the United States. Our guests enjoyed the events not just because of the stunning building and the prestige of the Embassy, but also because we worked hard on the guest list and on making introductions among our guests.

Officers were often asked to suggest appropriate guests for event invitation lists. If enough of one’s contacts accepted the invitation, the officer who had suggested those guests was also invited to attend the event as part of the supporting cast. When I was in that support role, I’d often roam the room introducing people who I knew but who didn’t know each other and had good reason to meet.

During one of those conversations at an event a colleague had organized, a guest complimented me on the reception. Still agog with the thrill of being part of the event myself, the words that came out of my mouth were, “Maureen did the bulk of the work.”


The next day, word got back to me that Maureen was utterly furious.

I was baffled. What was wrong?

As far as she was concerned, I had lied to a guest and taken credit for the event she had organized.

I was dumbfounded. That wasn’t what I meant at all. But my intention wasn’t even remotely important.

What mattered was how my words made her feel.

I had no sense that my responsibility was to be accountable for the effect, not the intention, of my words on someone else.

So I kept saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” and she just kept right on being furious.

The relationship never healed, for want of a single word.

All I was missing was a single word…and the profound understanding of what it would have meant had I know enough to use it.

Instead, I bumbled my way through decades of mis-steps and squirming out of accountability for all kinds of things, not really knowing what I was doing or saying wrong, nor how to make it right. 

Remember when you were a little kid, and a parent would tell you the words to say to apologize but none of them made any sense? You just repeated a pattern of words until the grown up was satisfied or gave up in exasperation? It felt like that.

“And I’m sorry for all the nasty things I said about your mother even though we both know they’re true…”

~ Christine Lavin

I never felt like I knew how the parts fit together for many years, even when I was completely ready and willing to own my sh*t.

Far too late came the day that I learned not only how to make a proper apology — that there is a WAY — but also that an apology was part and parcel of accountability, one of the seven elements of TRUST that is the foundation of healthy relationships. Thank you, professors Brene Brown and Harriet Lerner.

The critical elements are apology, accountability , and amends.

The syntax is:

“I’m sorry THAT…” (not “I’m sorry if…”).

When I use the word “that” it means I take accountability. I own my mistake.

Then I think hard about what some meaningful options might be, some starting point, that I can offer to make amends. I make that offer. And then I make good.

If you and I have built trust, then you accept my apology, and allow me to make amends.

An apology is more than a social grace. A full apology, fully accepted, also confers the divine grace of forgiveness.

I sure wish I’d known then what I know now.

Now YOU know.

This is one of the most useful skills I have ever learned.

I need it a LOT.

Somewhere, someplace, I still have amends to make to Maureen Flynn. And I owe her a debt of thanks for showing me how much hurt I was going to keep causing, to others and to myself, until I understood what was wrong and how to fix it.

Oh, and just in case you want to know what an apology really, really isn’t, listen to Christine Lavin NOT apologize.

Listen to the whole song, titled This song is called “Regretting what I said to you when you called me at 11:00 on Friday morning to tell me that 1:00 Friday afternoon you were gonna leave your office, go downstairs, hail a cab, to go out to the airport, to catch a plane, to go skiing in the Alps for two weeks. Not that I wanted to go with you; I wasn’t able to leave town, I’m not a very good skier, I couldn’t expect you to pay my way, but after going out with you for three years, I don’t like surprises. (And it’s subtitled “A Musical Apology”. In this song, I attempt to take back everything I said while standing in a phone booth at the corner of 49th and 3rd)

One thought on “The Apology

  1. This whole blog, was really eye opening. I don’t think I’ve ever apologized correctly, and this has really shown me something new. Listening to the song right now too. Thanks for the post – Leighanne


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