Companies scale — and relationships develop — at the speed of communication.
This suggests that if you’re frustrated by plateaus in your business or by emotional distance and recurring conflicts in your marriage, you’d do well to look at the patterns in your communication (particularly when stressed).
Good communication is a meta-skill. It will allow you to fulfill your goals in your business and your close relationships much more effectively.
And, of course, it’s a huge subject, so for the time being I want to focus on a specific stumbling block that I see show up repeatedly with clients, namely accountability and what a good apology looks like.
Keep in mind that good communication is a responsibility of all parties involved.
Nevertheless, due to the nature of human systems, a change in one person can influence the overall function of the system. This means that if you’re willing to take responsibility for the relationship, you can create a dramatic influence on the relationship.
Good leaders know this. Good partners know this. Good friends know this.
I want to focus on the nature of a good apology here because harm will inevitably occur in every relationship. It can’t be avoided. The operative question is how the relationship will handle harm when it occurs.
A bad apology will only make things worse.
A good one, however, will make the relationship stronger than it was before the harm.
That’s because a good apology reveals you as willing to be accountable for the harm and to extend yourself in the future in order to prevent recurrence of that harm.
It reveals you as committed to work on behalf of the relationship.
And y’all, that’s appealing.
That’s — I’d go so far as to say — sacred.
Although the external moves of a good apology are relatively simple, it necessitates a significant and humbling internal shift in your experience, and you may find that to be the hardest and most rewarding work of your life.
So how do you go about this feat?
Of the utmost importance is the recognition that — and how — your behavior has affected somebody else, intentionally or not.
So what have you done? What specifically occurred?
And how specifically did it affect the other?
You have to get this right. A vague, generalized apology compromises the relationship.
(Note: if you are unsure, perhaps it’s time to work on listening to — and hearing — what the other person is saying. Perhaps it’s time to study them with the care you wish were offered to you. And like it or not, you may have to go first here.)
“When I shut down and stopped talking with you, I know that I hurt you and I hurt our relationship.”
“When I didn’t stand up for you, I know that I betrayed your trust.”
“When I raised my voice, I know that I frightened you.”
You get the drift.
A good apology asks that you step into the other’s experience and meet them in it for a few moments. It requires your willingness to bracket your personal experience and attempt to understand the other person’s experience as they’ve lived it.
Don’t come up with excuses or explanations for your behavior. Now isn’t the time for them. Those intellectual moves can come later and may have great value in understanding how the situation arose, but that mutual understanding is only possible after the emotional restoration has occurred.
You may not agree with their interpretation, but you’ve got to be willing to consider it.
(Note: this is mutual. Do not abandon yourself for the sake of an apology.)
After you’ve acknowledged your behavior and its effects on the other, there’s another important move available to you, and that’s the declaration of your commitment to adjust in the future.
What will you do differently moving forward to prevent the recurrence of harm?
Again, this can’t be faked.
And you don’t want to make promises that you aren’t willing to keep.
However, the value in following through on this can’t be understated. When you make a declaration like this and actually act in accordance with it, you communicate something significant both to yourself and the other person, namely that your words can be trusted.
So now you’ve made yourself accountable for your behavior, the consequences of your behavior, and how you’ll behave differently in the future.
It could be as simple as saying, “I hope you’ll accept my apology, and I ask your forgiveness.”
You can see that in offering an apology, you humble yourself, giving the other person the power to accept or reject your apology. This takes courage, and I hope the risk involved isn’t lost on you.
You have no control over the outcome.
Few of us have experienced genuinely risking ourselves like this in our relationships.
Perhaps that’s why those relationships remain so superficial.
I imagine that, if you choose to put this into practice, it will feel strange at first.
It certainly did for me.
However, it’s up to you whether the relationships of your life are worth the work of extending yourself into unfamiliar territory. Those that do so are often amazed by the depth of connection that results from such an experience.
Again, you can be certain that harm is going to occur in relationships.
It’s all the more likely the closer those relationships are.
What makes all the difference is the way that the members of the relationship handle harm when it arises. A good apology goes a long way toward repairing (literally re-pairing) the relationship after a rupture, and it gives both you and the other person a dramatic example of possibility.
Taking accountability like this goes a long way to improving your communication..
This kind of improvement in communication is part of my overall approach to helping founders strike a balance between their professional ambition and the presence they want at home.
After all, the same communicative patterns and emotional conflicts tend to arise both at home and at work, and sorting those things out can result in improved performance in the business as well as more intimacy and trust with loved ones.