Last Friday was a beautiful afternoon. I went over to check out the progress that had been made at the Farmer’s Market site. They have been working to improve existing structures and create new ones to make the farmer’s market more enjoyable, no matter what the weather is. I walked into the construction area and my foot got caught on a piece of plastic sheeting. I tripped and fell, hitting my head on the concrete floor. I was bleeding from the cuts on my head and nose and my right shoulder was painful. Phil, the manager of the site, gave me a hand and was very helpful. I called Erin to let her know what had happened. She did not pick up.
Erin called back later and said “I’m sorry.” As she explained, what she meant was “I’m sorry that you fell”. The unspoken portion of her reaction was ‘that you fell’. Knowing Erin has I do, that was her way of expressing deep concern. Moreover, I heard it in her voice.
Saying (or hearing) “I’m sorry!” in response to an accident or event that caused injury or harm makes no sense to me. That is especially true when the person saying it was in no way involved in what happened and is not apologizing for their role in it.
I too could wish that the accident hadn’t happened, but the fact the matter is that it did. All one can do is acknowledge what happened and decide what they want to do about it.
I had the same reaction from others. The difference for them was that the unspoken portion implied ‘there’s nothing I can do to help. You’re on your own.’ That response puts the path to recovery back in the hands of the person who needs help. Being sorry that an event occurred after the fact does not prevent it from happening. That is especially true when you knew nothing about it or when you were not involved in its occurrence. On occasion the “I’m sorry” can be the prerequisite to an apology, as in the following instance.
I have a fine, long-time relationship with my friend Wendy. When I called her on Monday to let her know that I got banged up in a fall on Friday, she was very upset with me for not having called sooner. She said that if it ever happened again she would not talk to me again.
The reason for the delay was that I was aware of how much she already had going on in her own life, and I did not want to add to her burden. I was wrong for not calling. By not calling, I took away Wendy’s opportunity to do whatever she would have preferred to do under the circumstances. Calling her right after the accident occurred would have put her in the loop and enabled her to let me know how she wanted to handle the situation. Not calling, cut her out. I hadn’t thought about it that way. In the future, if something like this happens again, I will handle the situation differently.
Being open and honest about the situation is the best way to go, even under difficult circumstances. It is not controlling and puts the people you are dealing with — especially your loved ones — on an equal level with you. It makes it possible for them to say what is best for them. Moreover, it leads to an open and honest relationship. That is how I want to behave with anyone I’m in a relationship with.
Before saying “I’m sorry” it’s important to remember that the event that caused your reaction is in the past. There is nothing you can do to prevent it from happening. The same holds true for the harm the incident caused. It is not reversible either. All you can do is move on from here with any action that you choose to take.
“I’m sorry” is a truncated statement. It leaves out the essential unsaid portion of what one might intend to convey. An essential part of the reaction — one’s empathy and concern — is excluded because of the unsaid segment. Consider adding it in your tone of voice, with your body language and in words that convey that empathy and concern and your feelings.
In addition, “I’m sorry” also leaves unsaid, any offer of support that you’re willing to provide. Of course before making any offer of assistance it is important to make sure that it is based on your background, knowledge, experience and ability and that any help you provide will be beneficial. Furthermore, it is important to make sure that you have the disposable time, energy, resources and funds necessary to provide the assistance you are offering. If they are not available, the unintended consequences will fall on both of you. With that in mind, you can always listen to their concerns and, if appropriate, open up a dialogue by asking “Is there anything I can do to help.”
That’s a lot to think about when your likely initial, on-the-spot knee-jerk reaction on hearing about the incident is to say “I’m sorry”. Remember that the truncated version is subject to misinterpretation and that it may not convey your true feelings or intentions.
What are some ways that you express empathy and concern that don’t involve the words “I’m sorry?” Please share your thoughts.