06/20/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Apologies Don't Start with the Word 'You'

While talking to my stepdaughter recently, she told me about an apology her boyfriend made to her. I was surprised to hear that his apology had contained the word "You" more than the word "I." Most of us are used to hearing some version of these sincere apologies:

  • I'm sorry that I hurt your feelings.
  • I'm working on my issues so I don't do this again.
  • I must have been out of my mind to have said that to you, I'm so sorry.

She clearly had heard several "I'm sorry's," but his apology was sandwiched between a completely different subtext that said, "You are to blame." His apology also included:

  • You have issues, too.
  • You are always nagging me.
  • You made me upset.

What struck me as interesting was that she had stopped listening to all of his words when she heard "I don't want to lose you." Once she heard this, she felt like they could start again. Her emotions had made the decision for her to try again.

How often do we listen only until we get the answers we are looking for?

I remember being in family court and watching the court reporter type furiously, catching every word uttered. At the end of several hours, my attorney, opposing council my ex and myself all had different opinions about the outcome of the court appearance. Hence, the transcripts were supplied and as I read each word, I realized that without the emotion, the words told a very different story. I read statements that I didn't even recall hearing. The "slights" I felt didn't appear in the words found in the pages of the transcripts. It was a profound lesson in how often we hear only what we are looking for and how our emotions change the context of the words.

When we really listen intently to someone, it can be difficult and exhausting. The following may help in your communications:

1. Stop your internal dialog while they are speaking.
2. Refuse to compose a response while they are still talking and you are listening.
3. Withhold judgment about what is said or how it is being said.
4. Keep your emotions at bay regardless of what is being said.

When I pointed out to my stepdaughter that an apology is usually an expression of one's regret for having insulted or wronged another in some way, I quietly asked,

Where in his apology is his admission that he failed you -- his remorse?

I offered her the suggestion that she take notes when they talk on the phone next and write down everything he says -- to help her listen to everything that is being said -- not just what she wants to hear. When we really listen, we can make better decisions in all areas of our lives. Before we ended our call, I added, "And honey, a good rule of thumb to remember is that when the conversation starts with 'You,' it is rarely an apology."