This is a silly essay I wrote and presented to a group in Albany, California in 1993. It’s rather tongue in cheek but represents how there are skills for getting along with people that work in most situations. In this case, acknowledging that other people have feelings, is a key skill used in mediation and effective listening.
This is going to part of series of essays on skills learned including in mediation and assertiveness training about ways to think about getting along with people which is simultaneously important for one’s mental health.
I’ve never been one for big words and when my 4-year old playmate, Bobby Green, stood on the other side of our kitchen screen door one summer day and told my mom and older brother that his mother had sent him over to ask me to “apologize” to him, I at 5-years old, was learning a new word. I traced my finger in the water on the rough black painted wooden drop-leaf table. After awhile I remember meekly walking to the screen door and telling Bobby, “I’m sorry,” never finding out what it was that really bugged him. I must have not known because that’s all I remember of that incident, nothing before, nothing after, an awkward moment for me, a quiet girl. I don’t know if I was any better for it. He apparently was satisfied and went home.
Serious words, “I’m sorry.” Murray in 1,000 Clowns, the movie and play, has a scene where he goes down town to practice saying “I’m sorry” because he knows he will have to say it to someone important to him. He merely stands on a bustling sidewalk in New York City and repeats, “I’m sorry,” to the passers-by. They respond, “That’s quite alright. Just don’t do it again.” “It’s OK, buddy,” “I forgive you.” Murray has to apologize to his new girlfriend who just moved in, because he has blown several attempts to get a job and is in danger of losing his nephew who he has raised as a son, to the child welfare people. Murray’s brother, a more conventional fellow who brings a basket of fruit to his apartment everyday says, “You know what your problem is Murray, “Other people.”
Most times each side has a valid side to the story, but we humans live too close and too far apart, seldom listening and hearing what each other has to say. I don’t know how much difference “I’m sorry” makes, but it’s a start. I wasn’t raised Catholic, so I believe in bypassing the middle guy. What’s important is to try to listen and if you did hear, let the other person know it. It’s never quite that simple though. I’ve been trained to assist in mediation but when you are a mediatee you could say it’s a different ball game. Or really the same ball game and you suddenly find yourself up to bat when you’re used to standing out in right or left field, catching the balls, and when no one is catching the balls, you have to run and catch them yourself. Do you get the picture?
I’ve been on both sides of the equation several times, often both sides at once, as it turns out. I’ve done my share of pouting and storming. I’ve also had to learn the meaning of the phrase, “Don’t take it personally.” I know that you need to have a very secure and well-established self-image to be able to do that though.
My dad taught me one way to answer to criticism. He said this to an employer and I wondered how many jobs/relationships I could have salvaged with these 7 words, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Since then when the need arises, I occasionally use this phrase. It seems to be a way of letting the other person in the equation feel like they’ve been heard, however, the tricky part, which is why it seems kind of phony, is that it doesn’t mean you have to understand why they feel that way. I’ve come to understand its effect as my husband, who learned it from me, likes to feed it back to my various complaints. My ire is miraculously diffused and I hardly notice how trivial my problems then seem. I imagine being back at that wooden table tracing my finger in the water, walking robotically to the door, saying “I’m sorry you feel that way, Bobby.”
The expectation for ending this little essay is that I will conclude with the golden key to one of life’s major riddles, how to make peace with your neighbor in a totally pure-hearted way. However, this is literature, a form of art and I’m human and not God and if you were expecting that, well, I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Now if you’d like, just repeat after me,
“That’s OK, Marilyn, just don’t do it again.”
First Presented by Marilyn Jackson at Gathering Tribes
in Albany, CA
July 30, 1993
ed. version 2006