Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More


Inventing The Apology

Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, Napa, California, USA

November 9, 2021

I was showing some friends of mine around this Napa Valley, northern California's "wine country" where I live. They were here to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They'd booked themselves into a nice, quaint bed-and-breakfast inn, the likes of which proliferate in the valley (if you're planning a visit here, staying in one of our Victorian-style bed-and-breakfasts is the way to go). They'd made wine-tasting reservations at wineries noted for service, award-winning wines, as well as for breath-taking overlooks and scenery. Everything was set up, everything would be perfect ...

... except it wasn't. Something had happened with some of their reservations. Inexplicably the wineries had overbooked - and in this Covid era, the State of California has mandated strict limits on how many people can visit any winery at any one time to comply with the "six feet apart" rule. Three reservations had been canceled at short notice, and so we had to accept whatever new reservations we could make at the last minute - and they were slim pickings! Their perfect scenario was tainted.

As we started out on our tour, a pall hung in the air. They were upset, and arguably rightfully so - even if it didn't do them any good. I looked at what I could say that would be appropriate without sounding condescending or patronizing. And I couldn't come up with anything - which didn't do me any good either.

Then I got it. "I'm so sorry that happened" I said. There was silence. "What?!" they said after a while, "It wasn't you. You didn't do anything!". So I offered this clarification: "I apologize for the reservations being canceled.". Again, silence. Then they said "That had nothing to do with you. It wasn't your  fault.". And isn't that it? We have it that we only apologize if it's our fault, never just to own it. "I get that" I said, "... and ... I'm sorry and I apologize for the reservations being canceled.".

Suddenly the floodgates opened, and they were talking about their twenty five years of marriage, and the day we were about to spend in the Napa Valley. The canceled reservations were no longer front and center stage. We had begun to take on the day we could  have, not the day we couldn't have. Regardless of the fact that it wasn't me personally who canceled the reservations, my taking responsibility for it, owning it, and apologizing for it, created a new space for them, a space in which they could move on, a space in which we could communicate again.

We tend to think of the apology in terms of "right / wrong": if you're "wrong", you apologize; if you're "right", you're owed an apology. That's actually a small, petty way of looking at what can be created by the apology. See, it's never totally a matter of who's right and whose wrong: we're all  right, and we're all wrong, almost all of the time. It's not a matter of who actually canceled the reservations. The fact is the space was shut down as a result of it, and I recognized the power of inventing  the apology (ie of making it up  ...) to open it up again. I knew that the fact that I wasn't the one who personally canceled the reservations ie who did something "wrong", couldn't lessen the power inherent in claiming back the space by apologizing. It works. It's become something I deploy often. The results are dramatic.

Inventing the apology is the act of a big person. It creates space in which people can communicate again, regardless of who's right or who's wrong. There's more than one way to respond to canceled reservations or to any upset that occurs around us. "I apologize the reservations (or whatever) were canceled" is one way. "I get  the reservations were canceled" is another. Try both. Invent responses which work best. Own it even when it's not your fault. Invent the apology from your own bigness.

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© Laurence Platt - 2021 Permission