There is a lie that we learn as early as kindergarten. We even have a little song to help cement it in our consciousness. “Sticks and stones may break my bones. But, words will never hurt me.” It’s meant to help anesthetize us from hurtful encounters with other children and help us develop “thicker skin”. And, yes, it may indeed serve that purpose to some extent. The problem, however, is that as we age, we forget the tremendous power that words do have. They can give pleasure. But they also can hurt. Very deeply. Often worse than sticks and stones. In fact, when even one negative exchange happens, research shows that it takes as many as five positive ones to offset it. We see then that words not only have power. But, that negative words are actually more powerful than positive ones. When you find yourself having offended someone important to you with your words, here are five phrases that show you how to truly apologize–a key step to restoring the relationship.
Since 1862, appearing first in an African Methodist Episcopal Church publication called the Christian Recorder, the famous “sticks and stones” phrase has become intertwined in the American lexicon. More recently psychologist Dr. John Gottman, in his work with couples has found that it takes a ratio of five positive exchanges to counterbalance one negative exchange. In fact, it is this ratio that Dr. Gottman and his team can predict with 94% accuracy which married couples will divorce and which will survive. But, the principle of the five to one ratio extends far beyond just marriages. It is the nature of being human-certainly in Western culture.
Whether we are talking about relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, friend to friend, or co-worker to co-worker, the reality is that hurtful words will happen. Negative exchanges can happen even in good relationships. Sometimes, it happens because we speak without thinking. Other times, we let our emotions get the best of us. Still other times, we react before understanding the full context of the situation. The end result is that we damage the relationship, usually without intending to do so. There is distance and friction.