“David, tell Randy you’re sorry.”
The mother takes 7-year-old David to another part of the playground. By the sound of the “saaaaawry,” I’m guessing that David was being obedient, but he didn’t really know what he did, didn’t feel like it was his fault, and wasn’t sorry at all.
As adults, we hear (or even give) apologies such as, “I’m sorry you felt hurt.” “If I did something that hurt you, I’m sorry.” “I apologize, but I was really distracted by something else.” “I’m sorry, but you should know that I really love you and you shouldn’t take it so personally. It’s just the way I am.” “I’m sorry, but you are really making too big a deal of this. It is just a little thing.” “I apologize, but give me a break.” “I’m sorry for the problem you had. My assistant is normally on top of things.” When we give such apologies, we can say, as 7-year-old David did, “But I apologized!” However, when the apology (as in the examples above) is an inauthentic or inadequate apology, it doesn’t heal, doesn’t resolve, doesn’t soothe, and the hurt remains unmoved.
Authentic and effective apology is the very core of healing, clarifying, and restoring relationships, from interpersonal to organizational to cross-cultural ones. A real and well-thought-out apology can, like forgiveness, cut the cycle of anger, revenge, and hatred. However, making a genuine apology causes the giver to be extremely vulnerable. You are admitting directly to another that you did something that caused harm. This is very humbling! Doing so is also challenging because it’s like leaping off a cliff into the unknown. You are not in charge of how your apology will be received. Your efforts could be harshly rejected, your hopes for healing thrown back in your face.
A client spent some months working with his shame about having abused his younger sister. From a most humble place, he wrote her an apology in the hope that this could be a first step in restoring their relationship. Several weeks later, the letter was returned to him, with “Rejected. You will not be forgiven.” written across his words. He was devastated. Over time he began to look at what he could do rather than grieving for the loss of his relationship with his sister.
His sister couldn’t accept his apology, but he could demonstrate that he had learned and changed by volunteering at a women’s crisis center. He also could be proud that he had broken many generations of family history by not abusing his own daughters. These actions, which he was proud of, had shifted his inner wound from the shame of feeling unforgivable to the fact of being unforgiven. He could now move on.
I asked a few of my friends to remember a time when they needed to and did offer someone an apology. Usually, we rightly focus on the feelings and needs of the hurt person, but I wondered what the apologizer got from the process. This is what I heard: “I got to let go of at least some of my guilt.” “The apology was accepted. It repaired the relationship, and the friendship actually got better.” “In the process of getting to being able to apologize, I went through all my defenses and finally got to see something about myself that I didn’t like and face the truth about a familiar and hurtful pattern I had been denying or at least had been unaware of. This was hard work. Once I got it, the apology was easy.” “Honestly, I don’t know if I got anything at all. It was really like just getting it out of the way.” “It was unbelievably relieving for me.” “It took such courage. I try so hard to be ‘good,’ and it was painful but freeing to be able not only to see but to take responsibility for doing a bad thing.” “I learned that it’s really OK to make mistakes. What isn’t OK is not to apologize for them and learn from them.”
Apologies open big doors. As John Kador puts it, “Apology is the bravest gesture we can make to the unknown. … Apologies unmask all the hopes, desires, and uncertainties that make us human because, at the moment of genuine apology, we confront our humanity most fully. At the point of apology we strip off a mask and face our limitations. No wonder we hesitate” (Kador, pp. 43-44).
What is the value of apology to the one who has been wounded? Opportunity for restoring relationship, deescalating conflict, rebalancing power, recovering dignity, letting go and moving on, stopping a cycle of resentment and revenge, and increasing trust in the human capacity for goodness and truth. This is a strong litany. From the biggest perspective, “quarrels often escalate into serious conflicts on the fulcrum of apology. … Throughout human history, endless cycles of revenge and untold suffering have resulted from the denial of effective apology. It’s a tragedy because apology has the power to defuse almost all human conflicts” (Kador, p. 45).
In my book Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics and in my ethics programs, I talk about resolving difficulties as one of the most important and challenging skills to learn as leaders and human beings. I describe five things that most people need to hear in order to for an injured relationship to be restored. Not all of these things will be essential in all situations, but at least one—and probably more—will be needed. Here they are (Barstow, p. 160):
Making “a genuine apology or/and authentic expression of … regret” is the complete description of No. 3.
With a deep bow to Kador for his excellent book Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, I want now to suggest how one can make an apology with greater wisdom and skill.
Kador also names five dimensions in making an effective apology (Kador, p. 124): recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution, and repetition. Here’s more about each of these.
- Recognition. Apology requires recognition that what you did was wrong or harmful. The injured person needs to know that you understand your offense and that you are apologizing for the right thing. “I’m sorry I hurt you” is not sufficient because it is not sufficiently specific. “I’m sorry I spoke to you in a disrespectful way” is better. You need to face and name your offensive action. Doing so calls for humility and vulnerability. It is more effective when both parties agree on the facts of what happened, but sometimes when there is disagreement you need to give up your need for this aspect of closure. “Apology is basically giving up our struggle with history. Contested facts invariably lie at the heart of botched apologies” (Kador, p. 52).
- Responsibility. In this dimension, you take full responsibility for your offense without being defensive, making excuses, offering long explanations, or blaming anyone else. “You misunderstood me. What I meant was …” or, “And what’s your part in this?” won’t get you anywhere and might even make matters worse. “I take responsibility for being angry, using mean words, and hitting you” is clear and direct. In my program, dimension No. 2 is understanding (“They want to know what happened or what your intention was”). I personally have experienced times in which an explanation of my intention or my process was helpful. However, I agree with Kador that explanations can defuse an apology and that the best time for giving an explanation or stating your intention is later on, if at all. “In general, explanations burden apologies. … When victims first consider an apology, they don’t care about intentions. All they care about are consequences. Explanations have an unfortunate tendency to serve the needs of the wrongdoer more than the wronged” (Kador, p. 67).
- Remorse. Here you use the words “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.” It seems there isn’t any substitute for these exact words accompanied by appropriate feeling. The little boy on the playground used the right words, but he didn’t accompany the words with the much-needed nonverbal cues that would have demonstrated genuine feelings of remorse, humility, vulnerability, and respect. “I wish it hadn’t happened,” or “I wish I could do it over again” just doesn’t have the needed effect at the moment when “I apologize” is needed.
- Restitution. You need to make amends. You need to offer an appropriate action. “I was careless with your bicycle, and I will take it to a bike shop tomorrow to get it fixed and tuned up,” for example. Restitution should be aimed at a repair that goes one step beyond the actual harm done. In this example, that would be having the bike tuned up in addition to simply having it fixed. In my program, I talk about the question, “What is needed here for relationship repair?” While this can be a useful, heartfelt question because it conveys a desire to reconnect and restore the relationship, in the apology process it is usually advisable not to ask the injured person what restitution he or she wants because the person may not know or may ask for something greater than what you can offer. It is most often best to make an offering yourself. So often we hear the words, “Don’t admit you made a mistake because it will be held against you in court.” Offering some restitution would seem dangerous because it clearly admits guilt. However, this understanding is not supported by facts. “An expression of regret combined with an offer of restitution actually reduces punitive measures and lowers the odds of litigation. Restitution is not cost-free, but it is almost always less costly and destructive to the relationship than protracted litigation” (Kador, p. 99). “The last thing a plaintiff’s lawyer wants to introduce in court is evidence of a contrite physician who issued an apology” (Kador, p. 219).
- Repetition. Here you say what you have learned, how you have changed, and how things will be different in the future. This action in my program is aspect No. 4, learning: “They [the injured party] want reassurance that you’ve learned something and will act differently in the future.” Repetition in making an effective apology goes further. It is a commitment to not repeat the offending action. For example, “I’ve learned that I have poor boundaries. I revealed confidential information about you. I will not do this again. I hope over time you will be able to trust me again.” This commitment to change is critically important to the success of the apology.
- Ifs or buts: Don’t use them! “I apologize if I said anything offensive,” or “I’m really sorry, but I only said this because you said that” neutralize or worsen the injury by making the apology conditional and in effect denying responsibility (Kador, p. 203-204).
- Assumptions: You may be attempting to express your empathy, but “I know exactly how you feel” doesn’t really add to the process. It is much better to enter the dialogue by expressing interest in and concern about how the person is truly feeling. For example, “I wonder how I’d feel if …” is better than “If I were in your shoes, I’d …” (Kador, p. 209-210).
- Form: Begin your apology with “I.” This word makes it clear that this is a personal response from you. Don’t ramble on. Being simple, clear, and concise is more powerful and effective than an overly long apology (Kador, p. 211).
- Timing: When the offense is small, immediacy is best. A simple, “I’m sorry I stepped on your foot” will be enough. Without this simple apology, the relationship “bag” gets full of remembered incidents that can be interpreted as lack of awareness or respect on the part of the other party. This situation will then require a larger apology and more complex process for increasing trust. When the offense is great, however, time to think it through, cool off, or do some psychological processing is needed.
- Manner: Apologizing in person is usually the most successful. An email, which can be easily misunderstood, does not convey emotion very well. However, when a CEO or a government official needs to apologize, a written apology may be the only available way.
The other side of offering an apology is accepting one. On the receiving side, you must discern whether the apology is genuine and whether it feels satisfactory. Accepting is just accepting. It doesn’t automatically include trusting or forgiving. Rebuilding trust happens over time. Forgiveness is a separate process.
When you do accept an apology, it is important to make an acknowledgment. Responses such as, “It was nothing,” or, “Don’t worry about it,” or, “You don’t need to apologize,” or, “It’s too late” have the effect of dismissing the intended communication. They trivialize a vulnerable moment. Before learning about the apology process, I had thought that when I said, “It was nothing,” I was being kind, generous, and forgiving. I now understand it to be disrespectful. When the apology is genuine, it is best to say, “I accept your apology.” The interaction needs to be complete and acknowledged. A friend’s “I’m sorry I’m late; I know that caused you some extra work” deserves my recognition of her humility and awareness of her negative impact. “Thank you, I accept your apology” as a response in this case works well.
Apology can move mountains. A half-hearted one can make things worse. A sincere and well-crafted apology can restore relationships.
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