The art of a graceful apology: 3 elements Ryan Lochte forgot

Lochte’s apology heard round the world has everyone examining and reevaluating how best to make amends to those we hurt.

Ryan Lochte prepares for the preliminary heats of the men's 200m swimming event at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan on August 2015. Christophe Simon | AFP | Getty Images

I have given very little thought to the Olympics this year. Over the last few weeks, the majority of my evenings have been spent hurrying my two toddlers to bed and then collapsing on the couch, worn out from motherhood and third-trimester exhaustion. But the Ryan Lochte debacle—his attempt to cover up a run-in with the police in Rio, which snowballed into an embarrassing international incident—shook me out of my indifference.

Frankly, I was intrigued. Perhaps I’m naive, but I always hope that famous offenders in the spotlight might respond with remorse and humility this time. But today, while reading one of the many articles on Lochte’s foolish behavior, I realized he and my 4-year-old daughter have something very important in common—neither of them know how to apologize very well.

Lochte’s initial apology was this: “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend—for not being more careful and candid.” If this seems like a “non-apology apology” to you, you’re right: Two business professors, writing for Time, broke down the three basic elements that make a good apology: “An apology must be candid (not just mention the word candid) and take full responsibility; it must demonstrate remorse; and it must convey a commitment to change.” So how did Lochte fare against this criteria? The professors’ verdict: “Across these dimensions, Lochte’s initial apology fell short—far short.”

I am afraid that by admitting that I did something wrong, means that people will think less of me. “

This stood out to me, because making amends has been a daily topic of discussion in our house recently. Two weeks ago, long before I knew anything about Lochte (aside from his impressive medal count) my daughter and I started discussing apologies and forgiveness as part of our homeschooling Bible curriculum. This hasn’t been an easy lesson for her, mostly because she’s four, and lessons of this nature require a lot of time and repetition. But I was surprised to find that the idea of apologies and forgiveness is hard for me, because, embarrassingly enough, I am learning that I am not very skilled at apologies.

In order to teach my daughter how to make amends after she makes a mistake, I have had to learn how to address this issue in myself. This means I have take a look at exactly what makes it so hard to feel and express genuine contrition—beyond simply saying “I’m sorry.” And the answer brought me face to face with my own pride and a fear of rejection. I am afraid that by admitting that I did something wrong, means that people will think less of me. It’s a tricky feeling to overcome because it requires setting my ego aside.

In my preschooler, learning to apologize means a lot of rehearsing and repeating the same phrases and behaviors, and hoping that the genuine feelings of remorse sink in after. So we spend a lot of time talking about how mommy, daddy, and her sister will always love her, but when we hurt each other we need to apologize to heal the hurt we’ve caused. We also talk about how failures don’t have to define us. Everyone makes big mistakes from time to time, but responding with remorse and a commitment to change is what truly makes us good friends, good daughters, good sisters. A good apology is a sincere communication: I understand that I hurt you, and I don’t want to do it again. I want her to understand that a good apology means that people won’t think less of her—actually the opposite; a good apology is a mark of character.

I hope to walk away having taught my daughter that she isn’t expected to never make mistakes, but she will be expected to hold her head high and take action to repair the hurt.

So far, practicing apologies with my daughter means that our days come to a screeching halt with each stolen toy or frustrated shove, so we can understand why a rushed “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. We talk about why what she did was wrong or hurtful, and we come up with lists of ideas for how she could do things differently next time. She practices asking for forgiveness, typically from her 2-year-old sister, who stares blankly at her during the entire process and then plants a kiss on her lips or runs away giggling when it is all said and done. (I’m sure Ryan Lochte wishes the American media had such a short attention span.)

Most of the time, I don’t know if I am making an impact. Sometimes, I am too tired of the lesson to repeat myself again, to urge my daughter to repair a mistake she has already made more than once that day and will likely make again tomorrow.

Of course, my daughter and Lochte may share their poor apology skills, but my daughter is four and Lochte is 32. My daughter is behaving in a way that is developmentally appropriate for her age, and I know that she relies on me to help her grow in this area. As her mother, the weight of teaching these lessons falls heavily on me. I know my time with her at home is short. I want to be sure I have been faithful with our time, teaching her what she needs to know about interacting with the world around her. While this certainly means teaching her to make the right choices and to avoid foolish mistakes, it also means understanding that she will make mistakes. Ultimately, I hope to walk away having taught my daughter that she isn’t expected to never make mistakes, but she will be expected to hold her head high and take action to repair the hurt.

This means we will keep working on this lesson, even when I am exhausted of repeating the same phrases or frustrated that my words seem to go unheard. I will try my best to model remorse and true change in my own life when I hurt the people I love, and I hope that she will remember her mother as a woman who gracefully and humbly handled her failings. I hope she will do the same.


Mary Sauer
Mary Sauer
Mary lives in the Midwest with her two daughters and husband. She enjoys writing about parenting, food and relationships.

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