Say sorry – and do it soon – to save relationships

Published in the Courier Mail 23 September 2009

The world collectively grimaced last week, when Kanye West interrupted the Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for winning Best Female Video award at the MTV Video Music Awards.

For those who missed the vast coverage of the event, Kanye West ran onto the stage, took the microphone of Swift and declared, “Taylor, I’m really happy for you. I’ll let you finish. But Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time … one of the best videos of all time!” (Beyonce has also been a been a nominee in the category). Kanye West was booed off stage and Beyonce kindly called Taylor Swift back on stage later in the night to finish her speech.

And yet for Kanye, the damage was done. Condemnation was vicious and widespread, with castigation coming from those in the music industry through to fans and even to President’s. Appearing on “The Jay Leno Show” a few days later, Kanye spoke about the event. He said, “It was rude, period”, and suggested he may take some time away to reevaluate his actions.

Fortunately, unlike Kanye, we don’t all have our errors of judgement broadcast live to
millions of viewers. But 
all of us say and do things we later realize were inappropriate. Making amends is important but it can be difficult and sometimes intimidating
 to do so. However, when done well it can provide an opportunity for growth like few other experiences.

Whether it is business, friendships and family or other significant relationships, the art of recovery from a disastrous moment is an important one to learn. If we fail to do so, we live in denial or in emotional immaturity, governed by our feelings. There’s nothing quite as humbling as admitting your mistakes to people you need to continue to be around.

When we do wrong, we need to avoid the temptation to blameshift and make excuses, rationalizing our bad behaviour. Instead we need to own our guilt at wrongdoing and then create a mental inventory of those people whom we need to go and make amends with, seeking forgiveness.

This is actually a significant part of the 12 step program of recovery, and while we may not need to attend a support group, their methods are instructive.

Step 8 is to ‘Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all’ and step 9 is ‘make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others’. Perhaps even more importantly, participants are encouraged to make amends ‘when the first opportunity presents itself’. This is important, for it allows less time for bad attitudes to form and fester. In the words of Italian psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli, “Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation”.

In the Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, it reads, ‘In some cases, amends may be beyond our means…. However, we should never fail to contact anyone because of embarrassment, fear or procrastination.” Our errors of judgment may never be as prominent as Kanye’s, but their impact can be significant. It may well be time to put to paper, fingers to keyboard or pick up that phone, and have a difficult but courageous discussion. The temporary discomfort of such is far outweighed by the long term benefits to our relationships.