Oct 25, 2008

Posted by in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Don’t Be Sorry; Be Accountable

There are few phrases that ring more hollow than the words, “I’m sorry.”  Don’t agree?  Imagine your friend borrows your car and returns it with a tremendous dent.  He of course, looks sheepish and says, “I’m sorry.”  Are you feeling any better?  I don’t think so.  Let’s put the shoe on the other foot.  You just went out with a woman that you know your friend was pining for. Big time.  It went well. Really well.  You brag about it to everyone else but tell your buddy you are sorry.  Are you really? 

The phrase has become this universal get out of jail free card when in fact all it is in abdication of responsibility.  Now don’t misunderstand where I am coming from.  I am not telling you not to feel bad when you screw up.  When you screw up, it should burn.  In my mind, when you do or say something wrong and it hurts someone else, it is inexcusable and rightfully it should tear at your insides.  So, shouldn’t you say you’re sorry?  Only if you want to marginalize your relationship with the person you just wronged and cheapen the impact of your intentional action.  The time for “I’m sorry” is when you inadvertently step on someone’s toe or bump into someone on line and spill coffee on them.  But it should stop there.  If you intended to do what you did, own it.  If your actions were the result of your oversight and carelessness, clean it up.

Hurt happens in the moment.  In real time, to real people.   Cleaning it up is not an intellectual exercise that gets remedied by explaining either it or you away.

Revenge is visceral and the Sicilians had it right when they said it is a meal best served cold.  My advice is to do everything in your power to avoid having to pay the bill for that meal.

So how do you do that?  As much as I’d like to think of myself as enlightened, every now and then I succumb to dark thoughts.  Tthere are times when my thoughts fall victim to stereotyping.  If I am in Disneyworld or some supermarket and I see an obese person trolling around on one those motorized carts, my thought process will lapse into a less than flattering synopsis about how they got there.  I can give lots of examples where I think things that I am not too proud of.  Does that make me evil, a bad person?  That is somebody else’s call.  I do however believe what it does make me is human.  I think we all are.  We are all capable of acts of incredible stupidity or worse gross insensitivity.   And in those moments, it has been my experience that merely saying, “I’m sorry.”  is never enough.  Nor is whipping out my resume of prior good deeds.

            So what do I do?  First, I try very hard not to say or do those stupid things again and I never try to justify or minimize them.   Ever.  What I do when I really screw up is to make a point of understanding how the lapse occurred and to try to figure my degree of accountability in the break down.  I have found that understanding what happened and committing to take action to ensure the mistake does not happen again goes a lot further than a blanket apology.  Even more powerful, especially in a relationship that really means something to me is having the balls to look the person I offended in the eye and I tell them that I am sorry for having let them down or hurting them. Not for the words or actions – because if I said it or did it some part of me meant to — but for the result. You can’t take back the words or erase the deeds but you can embrace and be accountable for the result.  Now, I will cop to the fact that this is not easy.  It takes practice.  Looking someone in the eye in and of itself is not easy, let alone when you know you did something wrong.  But you can get there with some practice and resolve.

            So is conceding that “I feel your pain” enough?  No, it is just the start.  The magic is in what comes after.  It is in taking personal accountability for the results.  It is in saying, “I want to make this right by you”.   The most empowering statement you can make is to ask “what do you need me to do to make this right?”  It is probably the scariest offer you can make.  Because in that moment, you are giving away your trust, not your power but your trust.

            I can think of no better scenario to highlight this than a scene from the movie Gandhi.  In the midst of the riots between Muslims and Hindus that overtook India shortly after the British left, Gandhi declared that he would go on a hunger strike until the fighting stopped.  As he lay feebly on his straw mat he gave his followers the opportunity to sit with him.  One man came to him distraught.  In the frenzy he had struck and killed a Muslim neighbor and burnt his house to the ground.  The dead man had a small son who was now orphaned.  The man beseeched Gandhi for forgiveness.  He desperately wanted some way to regain his honor. Clearly, an apology was not going to be enough.  Gandhi’s suggestion was simple.  “You must raise the boy as our own,” he said.  The Hindu man quickly agreed.  But Gandhi did not stop there.  He continued, “And you must raise him as a Muslim.”  In a moment, the relinquishing of his trust was rewarded with an act that would allow him to regain his integrity and find inner peace.  

The tightrope that you are about to traverse by seeking to do the right thing can’t be understated.  Nor can the human dynamic at work here.  Most people will feel really uneasy with being offered the opportunity to hold you accountable.  When asked, “What can I do to make this right, “they will probably attempt to brush it off by saying, “no, I am fine.  I don’t need anything.”

            That is where you need to go back and get them to understand, that they just won the karmic lottery.  They can ask for anything in that moment and you will do your best to make it happen.  You need to get them to understand that the moment to get clean is right then and there.  They don’t get to say, “I’m okay” and pass on their right to extract their pound of flesh only to raise the incident in a week, a month, or maybe two years.  They need to get that this is it.  Let them take some time to think about it.  But this is it.  And when they insist that, “no it really is okay” only to take out the short list somewhere down the road – and they will — when they are trying to wiggle out of a moment just after they screwed something up and hurt you, you need to be firm and remind them of the conversation.  They had their chance and it passed.  They passed on it.  It’s over.

            The first time you try this dance it might get ugly.  But if there is relationship there, a real relationship, they will get it.  And the next time you screw up and you make an effort to clean up, they will get it.  And they might test you and ask for something really outrageous.  Do your best to give it to them.  Be true to your word and make good on the offer. Of course if you don’t think you can deliver on the request be clear about that up front.  If you agree to do something you know you can’t, you are only going to perpetuate this viscous circle of failures and attempts to make it all right.  

            So what is the point of all this?  It is all about self respect.  There is tremendous power in owning your mistakes.  By standing front and center and being willing to take the hit you are making a statement.     By rationalizing or minimizing what just happened you are only giving away your own power and opening yourself up to being spoon fed half hearted apologies and rationalizations when someone has done you wrong.

  1. Howard-
    Extremely well written as always.

    While you addressed a major issue where you say:

    “Of course if you don’t think you can deliver on the request be clear about that up front. If you agree to do something you know you can’t, you are only going to perpetuate this viscous circle of failures and attempts to make it all right.”

    I believe you gave this issue short shrift.

    A substantial percentage of the time (although by no means the majority of the time) when I ask how to make things right I get a response that violates my integrity even more than the original misdeed. So I’m left with a “viscous circle of failure” anyway.