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.
- 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.
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 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.
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.
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?”
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 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.
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
The power and paradox of apology has inspired many thoughtful quotations. Here are some favorites:
- “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St. Augustine
- “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” ~ Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)
- “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~ Josh Billings (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 C. Cutler
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 forgiveness research.
Learningtoforgive.com, Learn to forgive for good to reduce anger and hurt. See especially the Nine Steps to Forgiveness.