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Apologies That Help

No one can make you feel something. Someone can, however, behave in a way that doesn't meet your needs. You hope that if this person says "sorry" for their behavior they won't do it again.  With a NVC apology you can turn a vague hope into a concrete agreement and a sense of mutual respect.

Here's one way an apology can go sideways.  Someone recently forwarded an article to me called Anatomy of a Woman's Feelings by Alison A. Armstrong. Among other things she wrote, "She needs him to apologize for how he made her feel. She needs him to apologize for hurting her. He should say, and mean, "I'm sorry I hurt you…. If she suddenly sobs when he says, "I'm sorry I hurt you," he shouldn't fear. This sob is a powerful release of the hard, black fist that has gripped her chest.""

In this scenario the woman is getting some needs met for caring.  With her loved one's words she takes in that he cares about her.  Unfortunately other things like blame (he made her feel) and a lack of understanding about the needs up for each in the situation may also be present.

Feelings are the voice of your needs. They arise because a need is met or unmet. External events or behaviors don't make you feel a certain way. The event or behavior, along with your interpretation of it, stimulate needs which give rise to feelings.

In the NVC framework you not only get to identify the needs up for you and ask specifically for what you want, you also get to notice what you made something mean and whether you believe your interpretations or not. You get to take responsibility for your inner world and let others know your thoughts, feelings, and needs and how they can contribute to you.

"Sorry" can feed the blame dynamic in couples and leave them hopelessly confused about who is responsible for what.

You can start to clear this confusion by noticing what are the needs up for you when you ask for an apology. My guess is clarity and caring. Hearing someone say they are sorry, you hear them say that they didn't intend to stimulate pain or frustration for you. You get clarity about their intention. Also, hearing "sorry" you get that they care enough about you that they feel sad seeing you in pain.  This is an important part of the process, but doesn't yet create a mutual heart connection or an understanding about what to do differently. You can create connection and new behavior with a dialogue of empathy and honest expression.

If someone said to me, "What you did really hurt my feelings. You need to say you're sorry." I would start with empathy. It might sound like this:

"When you hear me say, 'I don't care if you come along', you feel hurt and sad because you need caring and consideration, is that right?"

I would keep guessing the other's feelings and needs until I was sure I really heard and connected with them.

Next I would express the feelings and needs that come alive for me when I hear my loved one's pain:

"When I hear you say you're hurting, I feel regret and sadness, because it's so important to me to communicate with caring.  Can you tell me what you hear me saying?"

After we have both expressed and connected with each other's feelings and needs we move into requests. I may have thought I did communicate with caring and clarity so I want to know specifically what meets these needs for my loved one. We discuss specific requests and let each other know what we are both willing to do differently in the future so that our needs are met.

A helpful apology isn't about making someone bad for what they did.  It's about making a space for the hearts of those involved to feel the pain that came up and then connect with what needs weren't met.  With an understanding of needs, you can choose to do something differently rather than just lamenting what you did.

This week, notice the next time you want to say sorry. Switch to empathy for the other and notice the quality of connection that is created.


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6 Responses

  1. Jan 28, 2011

    How do I apologize for what I've done? What is an example of an apology that takes responsibility for what I have done? Say I got into fear and blaming and started yelling. I may have said some things that were true for me, but the yelling was feels hurtful and inappropriate.

  2. Feb 01, 2011

    Hi Cassi,

    I'd love to help.

    I am attempting to answer just those questions in the article, what specifically is missing for you?

  3. Feb 03, 2011

    I guess what I'm looking for is a general format or guideline something like the feeling/need format. Thanks for the response.

  4. Aug 28, 2012

    I like this article, and the reminder to get clear about what needs are arising for us when we desire an apology. I also had some reflections come up around being really present and conscious when I am the one making an apology, asking myself what is my intent behind the apology. I sometimes find that I may apologize because I want to appease or please the person (e.g., "make them not feel angry with me."). An old pattern from childhood where shame and blame were used and I would apologize to "gain love." But an apology from this place feels really unclean and is not true connection; I'm not connecting with the other person's needs when I do this. So I want to practice really getting clear on what is going on for them, rather than jumping into an old pattern of mine, which is to feel guilt and want acceptance/to not be rejected.

  5. Oct 24, 2015

    How would you approach a person who is not responding/stonewalling? They are just being silent. I know there is something wrong as their demeanor has completely gone form very responsive and supportive to no communicative. This was a first time client who was excited to continue who now will not respond to email or phone messages. I have a need for connection and resolution and have no idea if anything or something about our appointment angered or upset her. It has been over a week now. How can I start a dialogue through email or in a voice message. My gut tells me there could have been a time issue and she may be disappointed as she had a need to be on time today another appointment and our appointment went a little longer than I intended. I would like to leave things in a better place and hopefully regain her trust. I am fairly new to NVC and currently in a practice group. Suggestions?

  6. Oct 27, 2015

    Hmm, that's a hard one. Maybe starting with self-empathy and just connecting with your feelings and needs. Your disappointment and concern and needs for connection and resolution as you mention.

    The other thing is to make empathy guesses for her on your side, just in your own heart.

    Just being steady and calm on your side and letting her know you are there if she wants to connect is really the only thing to do.

    She may be in overwhelm and not feel like she has the resources to reach out.

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