Episode 24: Apology
This is Episode 24. Today we will reflect on apologies, which play a vital role in conflict resolution.
While most of us know the importance of an apology, all too often we do not know how to craft a valid apology. We’re not certain what we should say. We worry, what if we get it wrong and the other person rejects our apology?
We start by realizing our apology must satisfy the other person’s needs. If our apology does not satisfy their needs, they’ll reject it.
In the past, when someone rejected our apology, our first impulse was to place blame on that other person. But too often the truth was we had not delivered a valid apology. We did not meet their needs.
So we begin by asking ourselves — what does the other person need?
In Chapter 16 of Taming the Wolf, I’ve compiled a list of needs that can be satisfied by a valid apology. But today we will focus on one major need — perhaps the most important of all. A person who has been hurt wants to be certain those harmful events will not be repeated. A wronged party needs assurance that “this will not happen again.” This is usually their primary concern, even if it is unstated. If our apology overlooks this need, it will likely fail.
The list in Chapter 16 of Taming the Wolf offers options for making the other party feel safe going forward. These options help convey the idea the future will be different.
For example, an apology must show respect. It must place the other party’s interests on a level equal to or above our own. We lift them up. The other person knows we are less likely to hurt someone we hold up and respect. While this message is subtle, it is effective.
An apology should also demonstrate empathy. This tells the offended party we can feel their pain and suffering. Without this expression of empathy the other party is not certain we truly “get it.” If we cannot feel their hurt we might not have sufficient reason to avoid causing them pain in the future.
Apologies are often rejected because a wronged party feels “you do not understand how I felt, you do not understand my pain.” If a victim receives an unfeeling apology, they may strive harder to make the offender “feel their pain.” They may experience a strong desire to inflict pain that will force the offender to “feel what they felt.”
A valid apology also tells the other person we accept responsibility for the harm done. We acknowledge our role in their suffering. If we omit a statement of responsibility, the other party will doubt our sincerity. In their eyes, we have not properly understood the damage our actions caused. If we do not know we were responsible for the damage done, we are likely to inflict additional harm in the future. In their eyes, we remain a potential source of danger because we just don’t get it. The other person assumes our lack of insight is the soil in which future harm will take root.
In contrast, if we accept responsibility for causing their suffering, the other party gains comfort. When we show them we are sufficiently cognizant of our actions to avoid future wrongdoing, they’re relieved.
When we take responsibility we also demonstrate we possess free will that will allow us to make better decisions and exert better control over our actions in the future. When our apology conveys that we know we have free will and we will be responsible for our future actions — it allows the victim to distinguish us from an uncaring sociopath.
They know a sociopath, someone who is unable to feel the pain he has caused, is likely to repeat his transgressions. And we find a sociopath or narcissist often does not understand why there should even be an apology. They might go through the motions because they’re expected to do so, but the apology is not heartfelt.
Thus, if we demonstrate we do not believe that we control our actions, if we believe “things just happen,” our apology will be unconvincing. The person who injures someone and apparently does not care is dangerous. A wronged person wants to know the offender “gets it” and “owns it.”
Our apology will also fall short if it appears we have underestimated how difficult it will be to change our behavior. Change is not easy. We must acknowledge the potential difficulty. Otherwise, our apology will be seen as glib and insincere. We may promise that we will not repeat our offense, but if we lack humility, our apology will be judged inadequate.
So we must present a cogent and convincing argument that assures others our harmful acts will not be repeated. Then we might share with them we are working with a priest or pastoral counselor or spiritual director to make changes. Or we may want to offer ways for the other party to monitor our progress, so they can be certain change is taking place.
In addition, we should offer a brief explanation of the factors that motivated us to apologize. We want to explain that our admission of wrongdoing is an act of free will. We want to allay any fear that our apology has been coerced and thus does not represent our true feelings.
An effective apology also provides an explanation of “why things happened.” When we deliver a detailed account of our actions — as we perceived them — we help the other person better understand the events that transpired. When we share our story, we offer clarification that reduces mystery and alleviates uncertainty.
This clarification of “why things happened” is vital. When a person is harmed they experience a lingering sense of unreality. Victims of harmful acts, even if the harm was minor, feel out of synch with reality. They fear their perception of reality has become tenuous. They lose confidence.
There is a reason for this loss of reality and confidence. We do not conceive ourselves to be valid targets for harmful deeds. There is no good reason for others to intend us harm. Thus, when another intentionally hurts us, the entire experience seems unreal. It makes no sense. Our reality starts to dim.
For this reason, we need the person who harmed us to provide a detailed and clear explanation that allows us to rewrite our narrative. This helps us restore our sense of reality and regain our confidence.
When we know why someone acted as they did, mystery is dispelled. We may discover the transgression had nothing to do with us. The offender’s actions may have arisen entirely out of conditions in his or her life. When we piece together events into a new narrative we regain our grounding.
Of course, in addition to these supporting options, an apology should include an overtly stated promise that harmful actions will not be repeated. An explicit promise that destructive acts will not be repeated delivers considerable value and comfort. It may be the most important part of an apology.
I hope these ideas have prompted reflection. Typically, we think of an apology as something that addresses the past. But, paradoxically, an effective apology actually speaks to the future. An apology reassures the other party that harmful actions will not be repeated. It addresses concerns regarding the future.
As you may gather from the examples provided, there are numerous ways a person can convey a promise of future safety. For additional information and reflection consult Chapter 16 in Taming the Wolf.
Good day. May God bless you and bring you peace.