Excuses Vs. Explanations: One Shows Responsibility

It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one. George Washington

Don’t you sometimes want to know the reasons you did or felt something in particular? Or is it that you just want to make excuses? You know that explanation for bad behavior you just heard from someone else? Is it really an excuse in disguise? Or did that person truly want to get something across to you that could matter?

To clarify the semantics, an excuse usually is not about taking responsibility. Rather, it tends to arise when one is feeling defensive; it’s meant to deflect from blame. An explanation, on the other hand, is usually offered as part of the process of achieving personal insight and actually wanting to be understood by others.

Excuses are common. We’ve all made them. Example: Years ago I taught a course in which an adult student with no paper to hand in tried out the old line, “The dog ate my homework.” That’s typically an attempt, of course, to cover up the lack of time and work invested in an assignment. My retort, by the way: “Bring me the dog.”

An explanation from the student, on the other hand, might have involved an honest reason the homework didn’t get done and acceptance of appropriate consequences.

As Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, asserts in a Psychology Today post, “The Only Excuse You’ll Ever Need (Or Should Ever Use)” is whatever the truth of the matter happens to be. Simple, but not always easy.

She and others cite research, however, indicating that excuse-making sometimes does work—though in this context an excuse is actually an explanation. Confused yet? Amy Nordrum (Psychology Today):

An analysis by Gettysburg College psychologist Christopher P. Barlett indicates that if you’ve done something to annoy someone, a thoughtful excuse—like ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been feeling really irritable today’—can stave off retaliatory feelings. Another study finds that in dealing with complaints, businesses can make a problem feel less serious to customers by deploying an excuse…

The most effective excuses accomplish one of two things: They either gracefully express one’s responsibility and offer reassurance that the mishap won’t happen again, or they explain that the situation was out of one’s hands. They also show empathy for the resulting trouble and mirror the mood of the listener.

Nordrum actually offers a technique for making excuses called the ERROR Method:

  1. Empathy: “I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me.”
  2. Responsibility: “I should have thought things out better,…”
  3. Reason: “… but I got caught up in [reason for behavior].”
  4. Offer Reassurance: “Next time I’ll [preventative action].”

It then falls on the receiver of the excuse to determine if it feels acceptable. Is the speaker being honest? Really trying to be understood? Or used to engaging in a pattern of getting out of things?

How do you figure it out? You might try digging deeper. Ask more questions. Or wait and see.

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