Coffee Roasting Company, Napa, California, USA
November 9, 2021
I was showing some friends of mine around
this Napa Valley,
where I live. They were here to
their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They'd booked themselves into a
nice, quaint bed-and-breakfast inn, the likes of which proliferate in
(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 ...
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
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
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