Effective Apologies

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Everyone makes mistakes. 

Celebrities are usually counseled by their public relations people to apologize. And we non-celebrities can also repair our relationships with bosses, subordinates, colleagues or peers by apologizing too.

But not every apology is created equal.

There are five steps to making an effective apology:

The first step is to be aware that you have harmed another. This can be difficult especially when the person who harmed has little or no self-awareness. He may fail to realize any harm was done even when the hurt person or others have flagged the harm. Other perpetrators may know they harmed another but dismiss it (e.g., What I did was no big deal), deny it (I didn’t do that or I didn’t mean for it to cause harm) or rationalize (He drove me to it). Sometimes a lack of awareness, dismissive or denying behaviours suggest a lack of empathy. The perpetrator can’t put himself into the shoes of the other person and see his behaviour was hurtful or harmful. An apology lacking in awareness sounds like this: “I’m sorry that you feel that way?”. Or an explanation for one’s behaviour is substituted for an apology, or no apology is forthcoming.

Once one is aware that hurt has been caused, an analysis of the behaviour ensues. Again, this can be difficult because it can make us feel regret, shame or sadness that we may have hurt another. But an analysis of what we did and what the consequences were for the other person is essential to an appropriate apology. This analysis entails a review of the incident, the facing of the pain caused and the difficult job of looking at one’s not-so-benevolent motivations behind the behaviour. This analysis is not complete if there’s a rationalization (e.g., It’s not all my fault, he hurt me by avoiding contact after we fought). If you have harmed someone but see yourself as the victim, you won’t make an effective apology. Rather, it is better to say to oneself, “I caused my friend’s response to me by behaving badly. His desire to avoid contact with me is a result of my mistake. I can make amends”.

Accountability for your actions is essential to an appropriate apology. Being able to admit your actions harmed someone else is an important step in being able to tell the hurt party that you are responsible. Reckoning with oneself cannot be underestimated when it comes to discussing the incident with the injured party. Without a full understanding of one’s culpability, an appropriate apology is impossible. Anything less results in excuse-making, subtle blame-shifting, minimizing and avoidance of the real issue.

Once one has recognized and taken responsibility for the incident, a decision can be made to apologize. In some cases, the perpetrator decides not to address the hurt party for fear of their reaction. This can include not wanting to hear details of the impact of the hurt (anger, sadness, distrust, etc). Rightly, when we have wronged another, we must expect to hear how they feel about the incident. This can be extremely uncomfortable but it is necessary to an appropriate apology. Being unwilling to listen to or empathize with the hurt party is a main reason many people do not apologize or apologize inadequately. Another excuse for deciding not to raise the topic with the hurt party is that “they need to apologize first” or blame-shifting. Failing to recognize that the consequences of hurtful behaviour were brought on by your mistreatment of another is a reason apologies don’t get made. This results in paralysis in which the hurt party is “expected” to start the apology conversation and the perpetrator takes the role of victim in typically “look what they did to me” style.

Apology Discussion
The question of who should initiate the apology discussion contains many nuances. In the case of a parent-child or superior-subordinate relationship, the more powerful individual may have to initiate the apology. For example, leaders must start the conversation to be considered credible. Leaders who behaved badly must begin apologizing first and then discuss what the subordinate’s responsibility might have been. In the case of peers, colleagues or equals, the person who hurt another needs to begin the discussion. An apology conversation initiated by the hurt party rarely results in closure. Ironically, in these situations, the hurt party may find himself apologizing to the perpetrator who has adopted a self righteous stance. That stops further conversation. But when both parties are more interested in fixing the problem than blaming, or needing to be right or to be seen as virtuous, apologies can promote increased understanding and rapport.

An appropriate apology on the part of the perpetrator must contain the following:

  • An acknowledgement that harm was done.
  • A description of the harmful behaviour.
  • An explicit statement about one’s accountability.
  • A description of what the victim can expect in the future vis a vis a behaviour change and the ways the perpetrator will demonstrate this change.
  • No conditions on the victim. This means no expectations that the victim will forgive the perpetrator, will re-start contact, will promise to go back to the way things were and the like, once the perpetrator apologizes

Usually an appropriate apology will allow parties to move on. It could bring greater understanding and closeness in relationships as well. But these outcomes cannot be why the apology is made in the first place. Heartfelt apologies are not transactions where a guarantee of relief for the perpetrator is part of the deal. The hallmark of a genuine apology is the sincere effort to recognize another’s pain and the resulting effort to alleviate it.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at: info@drjennifernewman.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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