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
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
Apology restores the congruence between what we
acknowledge to ourselves and what we acknowledge to others
when we blame ourselves
for their loss.
- A sincere acknowledgement of responsibility, wrongdoing,
- Restoring power to the injured.
- An encounter between two parties where the offender acknowledges
responsibility for an offense or
and expresses regret or remorse to the aggrieved.
Root: Latin apologia, from Greek apologiā : apo- + logos,
A speech in defense
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
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
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.
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
- Assigning responsibility for the
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
- 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
An effective apology addresses these needs. An ineffective apology omits
important needs. The emphasis will vary from one situation to the next.
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
- 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?”
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 a 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.
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.
You may wish to print out this one-page version
of the Paths of Apology and Forgiveness map.
This diagram 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
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
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
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.
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,
Inaugural Address, March
Remarks by President Clinton in
apology for a medical study done in Tuskegee, William J. Clinton, May 16,
The power and paradox of apology has inspired many thoughtful quotations. Here are
- “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~
- “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” ~
(1688 – 1744)
“There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~
(1818 - 1885)
- “Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge” ~ Fred Luskin.
- “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so
much.” ~ Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the
strong.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948)
- “It really doesn't matter if the person who hurt you
deserves to be forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. You have
things to do and you want to move on.” ~ RealLivePreacher.com,
- “The hatred you're carrying is a live coal in your heart -
far more damaging to yourself than to them.” ~ Lawana Blackwell
- “The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from
heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and
him that takes.” ~
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616),
“The Merchant of Venice”,
Act 4 scene 1
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by the Dalai Lama, Howard
The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, by Jack Kornfield
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
The Forgiveness Web, an Internet
resource for forgiveness
Forgiving.org, A campaign for
to forgive for good to reduce anger and hurt. See especially the
Nine Steps to Forgiveness.