Right way to apologize

In a conflict, sometimes `I'm sorry' gets lost in translation

October 01, 2006|By Jean Patteson | Jean Patteson,ORLANDO SENTINEL

You do something offensive. You're sorry. You apologize.

But sometimes, as Jennifer Thomas learned while trying to resolve a disagreement with her husband, simply saying, "I'm sorry," is not enough.

"One day my husband and I were working though a conflict," says Thomas, a psychologist with Associates in Christian Counseling in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I said, `I'm sorry.' But he said I missed the mark; I wasn't sincere."

Normally, says Thomas, she would have been miffed. But this time she was intrigued.

"I asked, `What do you need me to say?'"

Her husband responded: "I need you to say, `I was wrong.'"

That's when Thomas realized there are many ways to apologize. The result has been a better relationship with her husband -- and a new book, The Five Languages of Apology (Northfield Publishing, $22.99). The book, which she co-wrote with psychologist Gary Chapman, author of the best-selling The Five Love Languages, was released Sept. 1.

The timing is fortuitous. Apologies have been much in the news in recent months.

Tom Cruise apologized to Brooke Shields for criticizing her use of antidepressant medication for postpartum depression. Mel Gibson apologized, twice, for his actions during a drunken-driving arrest -- first for his belligerent behavior, then for his anti-Semitic comments. Oprah Winfrey performed an on-air mea culpa after learning that James Frey, an author she had championed, had fictionalized parts of his memoir.

Whether made publicly or privately, apologies are important, says Thomas.

"Nobody's perfect. There will always be times when we offend people. That creates barriers in relationships. The barriers remain until we do something active to clear them."

At the heart of the book is the idea that apologies can be made in different "languages." For a person's apology to be perceived as sincere, it must be made in the "language" of the recipient. The book lists five "languages of apology": Expressing regret ("I am sorry."); accepting responsibility ("I was wrong."); making restitution ("What can I do to make it right?"); genuinely repenting ("I'll try not to do that again."); and requesting forgiveness ("Will you please forgive me?").

When apologizing to a group of people, it may be necessary to use all five languages to reach everyone in the group, says Thomas.

The art of apology can be learned, she says, and the book sets out to teach how to apologize -- in the family, in dating relationships and in the workplace.

Jean Patteson writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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