Yeah, but What if I'm Not Sorry?
’I’m sorry you feel that way’ isn’t an apology!” she yelled at me. Well spotted because I had zero remorse. I believe the best reason for a lack of apology is because you’ve done nothing wrong. In this instance, I’d done a quality job using the same processes I had for many years and had been praised for; I was in integrity with myself. But there was a new sheriff in town, and I was called on the carpet like a truculent child made to apologize to a manipulative game-playing relative. It was all about office politics and unstated expectations. Perhaps you’ve had a similar soul-sucking experience.
Not owning up when there is good reason to offer regret is a different matter. I suspect we’ve all been there—wrestling with an ego that refuses to utter, “I’m sorry” and mean it. There tend to be tip-offs that we’ve blown it which come in the form of thoughts or emotions. My personal cue is when I repeatedly (and angrily) categorize all the reasons I have to be aggrieved. That’s when I know something is amiss with me, not the other person. Once I untangle the mess in my head, I can assess whether an apology is in order. If it is, I sweet-talk my ego to the point I can say it with sincerity.
But if you’ve clearly reviewed a situation, asked yourself the hard questions, and still believe you come out clean, it’s difficult to offer amends. Doing so leads to a swim in the unpalatable waters of fury and compromised values. You’d be forgiven (at least by me!) if all you can muster is, “I’m sorry you feel this way.” You may feel sincere regret that they are upset—or not. With time, it’s possible you’ll view the episode differently, but at the moment, when action needs to be taken, you have to decide whether to apologize or not.
For many years, my calculus for this was based on whether I could afford to break ties with those who held the power. During my financial rollercoaster years, I literally could not afford to lose the contract or the job. I did my best to avoid gigs where I sensed I was a poor match with the client—even if I had no nest egg to fall back on. But my care to take on well-matched work didn’t save me from the few instances where I had to compromise my own values to assuage an upset client. One time, when I couldn’t muster a full apology to an aggrieved customer, I was able to say, “I’m sorry for my part of this.” That was a statement I could own, and it seemed to be enough because we continued to work together.
There are people who have an easier time telling little lies to remain employed. If having a smooth relationship assumes priority over all else, it’s less difficult to say whatever is demanded. I suppose one could employ the coping strategy of crossing fingers behind the back to feel some sense of personal agency, but for those who are knowingly compromising themselves, my question is, “What are the tradeoffs in terms of stress and anger?” I wonder if they find themselves seething inside, or if they are truly able to let it go. How does it make them feel about themselves? Mollifying others’ egos can lead to backing oneself into ethical, legal or safety corners. Not to mention feeling lousy about oneself. None of these sound like good trades.
Keeping an indispensable job should not have to involve making a deal with the dark side. I hope you never have to, or at least not for long. Back to my initial example, I did what was required to keep the job because I needed it. I gave a “sincere” apology, which meant saying the expected words. But the entire situation became one more nail in the coffin of a clearly doomed work relationship. It took six months of planning, and I was out the door. Then I was able to breathe easier—and I slept a whole lot better.