— Expressing remorse
The fascinating book On Apology, by Aaron Lazare begins with this paragraph:
“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”
A genuine and effective apology can reduce the pain of guilt and shame and help to resolve anger. Effective apology can create a satisfactory asymmetrical balance where genuine remorse is accepted as the only available compensation to offset an irreparable loss.
Apology restores the congruence between what we acknowledge to ourselves and what we acknowledge to others when we blame ourselves for their loss.
The objectives of this course are to help you:
- Understand the importance of apology,
- Understand the role of apology,
- Learn when an apology will be helpful,
- Make a full, sincere, and effective apology,
- Take steps to restore broken relationships.
Apology refers to:
- A sincere acknowledgement of responsibility, wrongdoing, and regret.
- Restoring power to the injured.
- An encounter between two parties where the offender acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to the aggrieved.
Commonly used synonyms include: acknowledgment, admission, amends, atonement, concession, confession, defense, excuse, explanation, extenuation, justification, mea culpa, mitigation, plea, redress, reparation, and vindication. These are inexact substitutes because they each refer only to a portion of a full apology.
The Paradox of Apology
A genuine apology provides so much benefit with so little cost, it is surprising and unfortunate it is not more common. The decision to apologize is a tug-of-war between stubborn pride and guilt. Since guilt is authentic, and stubborn pride is not, it seems best to get on with the apology. Making a sincere apology is an act of courage, not a sign of weakness. Many people are reluctant to apologize because they fear either humiliation or retaliation. This is unfortunate because most genuine apologies elicit gratitude as the response. Failing to apologize can be a costly dominance contest that prolongs bad feelings in a relationship that could have been easily avoided or foreshortened.
Reflect on transgressions you have caused, and people who you have hurt because of your actions or failures to act. Did you apologize for causing this hurt? Why or why not?
Healing with an Apology
When someone is offended, hurt, insulted, injured, or humiliated, they seek to heal themselves and the damaged relationship. This creates several needs that can be met by an effective apology. These include:
- Restoring self-respect and dignity to the injured person; they need to know they are still a worthy human being.
- Being assured certain values are shared by both the offender and the aggrieved; we share the same concept of a safe and moral world. Empathy prevails, and we can trust each other.
- Assigning responsibility for the loss to the offender and relieving the offended person of that responsibility; it was your fault, not mine.
- Assuring that the relationship is safe, valued, continuing, and predictable; we can resume constructive, productive, and enjoyable interactions.
- Seeing the offender suffer for the hurt they have caused; you can't fully appreciate how I have suffered until you have suffered. The relationship is symmetrical. You will get what you deserve.
- Repairing the damage, known as “paying reparations”; put your money where your mouth is.
- Initiating or resuming a meaningful dialogue with the offenders; let's come to a full understanding of what happened, why it was so painful for me, why it happened, and how similar harm will be prevented in the future.
An effective apology addresses these needs. An ineffective apology omits important needs. The emphasis will vary from one situation to the next.
Reflect on a time when you were hurt by someone’s carelessness or lack of consideration to you. Did the person apologize for hurting you? Do you harbor any resentment because no apology was given? Has this lack of apology harmed your relationship?
Elements of an Apology
A successful apology includes each of these four elements:
- Accepting personal responsibility; acknowledge the specific offense and the pain it caused and clearly take personal and unconditional responsibility for the offense. Acknowledge directly to each of the injured parties your role in causing the damage and their suffering,
- Showing Remorse; humbly and sincerely describe the painful regret you feel for committing the offense. Look backward to express your regret. Describe the transformation that has taken place within yourself as a result of this experience. Then demonstrate forbearance by looking forward to describe the lessons you have learned and the changes you have made to ensure nothing like it will ever happen again.
- Offering an explanation; honestly, candidly, and simply describe why the offense happened. If it was inexcusable, simply say so.
- Making reparations; fully repair the loss if that is possible, otherwise ask: “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”
The simplest minimally acceptable apology can be expressed as: I regret the hurt I caused you, it is inexcusable, and it will never happen again. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?
- Recall a time when you apologized to someone. Did your apology include all four of the elements listed above? If not, what elements were missing?
- Recall a time when someone apologized to you. Did their apology include all four of the elements listed above? Did you find their apology sincere and satisfying? Did your relationship strengthen or weaken as a result?
Accepting an Apology
If you receive an apology you can choose to accept it, ignore it, or reject it. Certainly if the apology contains all four elements described above, it is sensible to accept it. Even if the apology is deficient in some element, it is sensible to accept it if it is sincere, demonstrates remorse and forbearance, and the relationship is worth maintaining. Forgiveness is usually a strength. However, if the apology is inadequate, and you believe the omissions are deliberate and manipulative, turn down the apology and give your reasons. Certainly, an apology that lacks authentic remorse is seriously deficient and deserves to be declined. An off-handed “I'm sorry” is rarely adequate. When declining an apology, it is best to describe what you see deficient in the apology, referring to the four elements above as the standard for an acceptable apology.
When you accept an apology, do so graciously and sincerely without any attempt to insult or humiliate the apologizer. Do not exploit the vulnerability exposed as they apologize. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and not as an opportunity to inflict harm.
Power shifts are apparent when offering and accepting a sincere apology. Acknowledging some wrong exposes vulnerability, but choosing to apologize for it demonstrates strength. Having the option of accepting or rejecting the apology creates some amount of power, and this may transform the victim into the powerful one. The decision to accept or reject an apology may depend partly on the history of the power relationship that already exists between the two parties.
- Recall a time when someone apologized to you.
- Did you accept their apology? Why or why not?
- Is the issue resolved? What next steps might be helpful?
- Did the relationship strengthen or weaken as a result?
Paths of Apology
Understanding when to apologize, the effect it can have on ourselves and the aggrieved, and its relationships to forgiveness helps us to manage our relationships and feelings. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either prolong or resolve our hurt or guilt. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path. If you can arrange a constructive meeting with the offended person, use this map to discuss where each of you are now and to choose a path leading to resolution of your conflict.
The diagram shown on the right is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or incident at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.
The following is written in first person; “I” and “me” refer to the aggrieved, and “you” refers to the offender.
OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to being free of hurt, anger, or guilt; including a full reconciliation of hurt or guilt The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.
You hurt me: You did something (or neglected to take action) that hurt me physically, materially, or psychologically. It could be a slight, insult, betrayal, injury, assault, theft, or anything else that harms me or humiliates me. This is an example of the “insult” path on the “Paths of Anger” chart.
Hurt: I feel humiliated, angry, resentful, bothered, or just plain bad. I am annoyed at you, my offender. This is an instance of the “Angry” or “Resentful” states on the “Paths of Anger” chart and it can lead to all the destructive states described there. The yellow color indicates my pain and resentment, and the need for caution in choosing the next path.
Effective Apology Received: The offender offers me an effective apology. I feel vindicated because you have acknowledged your responsibility in causing me harm.
Ineffective Apology Received: An insincere attempt to patch things up, a failure to acknowledge your responsibility, attempts to explain away your actions, a failure to acknowledge your understanding of the injury you caused, or any of several other omissions causes the apology to fail. I remain hurt by the original offense, and now I hurt even more because you tried to make yourself feel better and manipulate me without addressing my needs.
Vindicated: You admitted your error, your responsibility, and my hurt. Perhaps you made reparations. In any case, I feel vindicated because you have taken responsibility for my pain. The greenish color acknowledges the hurt may be over, while the yellowish color recognizes this may be hurtful to you and my forgiveness is still required for a complete resolution.
I forgive you (after an apology): You have apologized, the hurt is over, and I feel compelled to forgive you. The relationship is reconciled and we are both OK again.
I don't express forgiveness to you (after an apology): Even though you have made a sincere and effective apology, I decide not to forgive you, or at least not to express forgiveness to you. I let you suffer, perhaps only for a few minutes, or hours, or maybe for days, weeks, and years. I am enjoying my new power over you, and I am remaining spiteful.
Spiteful: You have humbled yourself and apologized to me, yet I decide to withhold forgiveness. Don't go too far with this, hubris goes before the fall. The yellow color indicates the need for caution in choosing the next path.
I forgive you (before an apology): Even though you have not offered me an apology, I decide to let go of my hurt. I forgive you and gain a serene inner peace and satisfaction for myself.
Serene: My unilateral forgiveness puts the hurt in the past, allows me to get on with my life, and provides me with a serene and tranquil inner peace. I am OK now, but you may still need to apologize at some time for a full resolution. I may feel proud of myself. This is shown touching the OK bubble, because I am OK. The green color acknowledges my peace.
You apologize to me (in response to my unilateral forgiveness): In response to my expression of forgiveness, you apologize to me. The relationship is now OK and fully reconciled.
I hurt you unknowingly: You have taken offense, you are hurt, and I am clueless and unaware of your hurt, or what I have done to offend you.
Unaware: I am clueless and unaware of your hurt, or what I have done to offend you. The greenish color acknowledges you may feel OK, while the yellowish color recognizes that awareness will eventually lead to guilt.
I become aware of your hurt: After reflection, reappraisal, or dialogue with others, I recognize I have hurt you. I now feel guilty.
Guilty: I now understand that I have transgressed your sense of justice and morality. The yellow color represents the dangers I can face and cautions about the choices I can make.
I accept responsibility: When I accept responsibility for what I did to hurt you, I become remorseful.
Remorse: I feel genuinely bad about the hurt I have caused and I take responsibility for the hurtful choices I made. The greenish color acknowledges remorse can be only one step away from a resolution while the yellowish color recognizes that a full restitution is still required.
I apologize to you (with remorse): I can authentically express to you my responsibly and remorse and make a successful apology.
I apologize to you (without remorse): I realize you feel hurt, but I have no idea why. I apologize anyway to try to patch things up. I become perplexed because I don't feel responsible for your hurt, yet you are clearly distressed.
Perplexed: I am confused because I don't feel responsible for your hurt, yet you are clearly distressed. If I later understand my role and take responsibility, I will feel remorse and can fully resolve the dilemma and reconcile the relationship. The greenish color acknowledges I may no longer feel guilty, while the yellowish color recognizes that I feel conflicted.
- Consider an example of some relationship in your life where an apology is pending, missing, or incomplete.
- Reflect on the status of that pending apology and identify the corresponding state in the above diagram.
- Decide on the next step you will take.
Examples of Successful Apologies:
Each of these historically significant apologies are successful because they include the four required elements of a full apology.
- Remarks of Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Department of the Interior at the Ceremony Acknowledging the 175th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs September 8, 2000
- Speech by Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, in the Bundestag during the Ceremony Commemorating the 4th Anniversary of the End of the War in Europe and of National Socialist Tyranny, May 8, 1985
- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address , March 4, 1865
- Remarks by President Clinton in apology for a medical study done in Tuskegee, William J. Clinton, May 16, 1997
Students interested in learning more about apologizing may be interested in the following materials:
- Lazare, Aaron (November 3, 2005). On Apology. Oxford University Press. p. 320. ISBN 978-0195189117.
- Dalai Lama; Cutler, Howard C. (October 26, 1998). The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Riverhead Books. p. 322. ISBN 978-1573221115.
- Kornfield, Jack (August 27, 2002). The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace. p. 224. ISBN 978-0553802054.
I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.
- Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla (April 19, 2004). A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid. Mariner Books. p. 208. ISBN 978-0618446599.