“I’m sorry” can be both very powerful and very disturbing. Like “I love you,” the phrase at the top of this post can say a lot in only a few letters. Of course, it can also say next to nothing at all.
Over the past two days my oldest daughter has had to think about her usage of “I’m Sorry.” She ignored another adult who was speaking to her, so yesterday after school I had to walk her over to the person’s house to have her apologize. And, she also used a characteristic of a person’s weight to identify them (“Oh Mrs. _____? She’s the big one with glasses). So, today we shared with her that she needed to apologize for basing a person’s identify on physical characteristics, rather than “who” the person really is.
In the first case, I feel like she was asserting her authority (or attempting to). In the second case, I think she didn’t think fully about her word usage. In both cases, it isn’t necessarily something out of the ordinary for a child to do.
And, in reality, it isn’t so much the “I’m sorry” that is important, but rather the process of rethinking one’s behavior, or words, to understand the need to consider what and why we’re doing something as we’re doing it (and in the best case scenario, before we do it).
I believe both apologies will be sincere, but I worry about two things, both of which can also relate back to our work as leaders and learners.
1. Sometimes we apologize too much, too often; or on the flip side, never enough. The funny thing about apologizing is that if you do it too much, or too little, when you do apologize, it never seems to hold water. There is an unspoken balance to how we take responsibility, and what form that responsibility taking takes on. I believe in apologizing when I have done something wrong. But, just as much, I believe in taking responsibility for fixing things to show my ownership, or, in the best case scenario, planning better, so bridges get built well, rather than having to fix the ones that have been burnt.
2. Not changing behavior. An apology of action (or inaction) can be great, but we need to make sure that we are also changing our behavior in response. Once we begin apologizing multiple times for the same mistakes, it forms a habit, which is very different from a one-time “slip up.” An acknowledgement of wrong-doing requires changes in the way we do things. Without that change, an apology is unheard at best, and worthless at worst.
I want my children to grow up understanding the value of “I’m sorry.” And for that to happen, I have to make sure that I’m modeling the need for appropriate acknowledgement. There is much we can be sorry for in this world. But just as important, there is much that we can take action to change. Leading and learning is always about being both responsible and taking action. Without these two, no learning or leading can ever truly take place.