And that takes us neatly to another real-world skill that will improve all your relationships: knowing when you’re wrong and owning up to it.
If you see conversations as battles and your conversation partner as an opponent, then any hint that you’re in the wrong is likely to cause a defensive reaction in you. You might even assume that the other person pointing out your error is attacking you, and respond in kind. If the goal of conversations is to bolster your ego, then making a mistake is going to feel like vulnerable, and it will seem like the conversation is now a failure.
However, if you see your goal as connecting meaningfully and compassionately with others, then you’ll view any mistakes—your own or others’—as obstacles to connection that can be dealt with as honestly and directly as possible. Being mistaken doesn’t mean you lose a point, and spotting flaws in the other person doesn’t mean you gain one.
Like curiosity and compassion, humility is also a characteristic that people think is weak but is actually incredibly powerful. One of the best things you can do in relationships is learn to quickly and thoroughly accept when you’re in the wrong and take responsibility for apologizing. For so many people, being wrong or called out can feel humiliating, enraging, or shameful. But it isn’t! Making mistakes is the most boringly normal thing that humans do. How you respond to your own mess-ups is what makes the difference, however.
If this sort of thing is difficult for you, start small by learning to say “I don’t know” in conversations. Practice accepting and acknowledging small mistakes you’ve made. “Oops! I said Friday but I meant Thursday.”
These little concessions will make it easier to own up to the big mistakes and apologize in a more serious way. Psychology researchers Roy Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert Lount Jr. conducted two studies which suggested that an effective apology needed six key features:
Expressing regret and remorse (“I am so, so sorry for what I did, and I wish I could go back in time and change everything.”)
Explaining what happened and why (“I was late that morning and rushing, and because I was on my phone, I didn’t see your dog and ran over them in the driveway.”)
Full acknowledgement of personal responsibility (“This was entirely my fault.”)
Feeling repentant (“I have had a long hard think about what happened, and I am one hundred percent committed to never letting this kind of thing happen again. I have promised myself I won’t even touch my phone in the car ever again.”)
An offer to repair or make things right (“I will of course pay all the related vet expenses, or even the cost of another dog if that is something you’d consider.”)
A request for forgiveness (“I know I can never bring your dog back, but I hope that in time you can forgive me. I never meant to hurt you or Lucky.”)
One other factor is that the sooner you can demonstrate these elements the better—and the more you’ve messed up, the sooner and more thoroughly you’d better tick each box. The most important of all is to accept full responsibility for what you’ve done. Nothing is more inflammatory than a faux apology where the person just blames someone or something else or makes lame excuses. The least important aspect is asking for forgiveness—it’s best to do this only after you’ve done all the others, or else you’re asking someone you’ve wronged to give you something, which is not exactly a good look.
But all this takes . . . you guessed it, humility. You need to swallow your pride and tell your ego to sit down. You don’t need to beat yourself up or cover yourself in shame, though. In fact, this may come across badly. It’s more effective to own up to what you did, rather than what you are. Don’t get dramatic and say, “I’m an idiot,” but rather say, “I did a stupid thing; it was a mistake.” Dwelling on your own melodrama or how sad you are to have made the mistake is unlikely to work. Trying to make other people feel bad for you when you’re to blame will also across as manipulative, even if you genuinely are cut up by it all.
Be careful in your explanation not to squeeze in any excuses or minimize the problem. Have empathy and see the situation from their point of view. If the tables were turned, what would you most want them to say to you? Don’t be passive or make it seem like things just happened (“I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt . . .”). Just rip the Band-Aid off and own up to your actions. Be plain and upfront.
Finally, once you’ve apologized, let it go. You cannot control how people take your apology, and they may not accept it at all. That’s their prerogative. Whatever you do, don’t nag them for forgiveness or act entitled to be absolved just because you apologized. They will feel how they feel—your only job is to get clear in yourself and communicate your apology as best you can. Getting angry or disappointed with people because your apology didn’t get the reaction you wanted is simply selfish. If you get a cool response to a heartfelt apology, just say, “I understand.” No need to keep apologizing. The ball is now in their court.