Apology is the bravest gesture we can make to the unknown. If you think about it, the unknown is exactly what we enter whenever we apologize. Offering an apology is like tossing a lit firecracker and hoping it’ll be caught and maybe—just maybe—will become, through the gentle power of acceptance, an instrument of healing. Will your apology be accepted? Will the person you are apologizing to become emotional and make a scene? If you make yourself vulnerable, will the person you are apologizing to be compassionate or punitive? What if the recipient uses the apology to punish you or uses it against you in court? If your apology is rejected, then what? Apology draws its power from requiring us to trespass on uncertainty. If the outcome to an apology were predetermined, it wouldn’t be so difficult—and it wouldn’t be so powerful. Apology derives its moral authority from this fundamental uncertainty. There are no guarantees.
Here is the paradox: it is this very uncertainty that energizes apology. Apologies are loaded with all the hopes, desires, and uncertainties that make us human because, at the moment of genuine apology, we can’t avoid our humanity. At the point of apology we strip off a mask and face our limitations. No wonder we hesitate. Or we hesitate because we are not sure whether what we did merits an apology. Sometimes we feel the other party needs to apologize first. Maybe, we think, the best course is to let the whole situation blow over.
We are endlessly aware of why it’s hard to apologize. We fear that if we apologize, we might:
•Cause people to lose respect for us.
•Give spouses, coworkers, or friends ammunition to use against us.
•Be misunderstood and make matters even worse.
•Damage our career, derail a promotion, or stain our reputation.
•Create a shouting match, tears, or a big emotional scene.
•Fill us with shame and embarrassment.
•Present enemies with the ammunition to sue us.
•Impose costly consequences or restitution.
•Alert victims who are unaware of the offense.
All of these fears are real, although I think we overestimate their likelihood. Not apologizing has costs, too. Some of the reasons for not apologizing are primarily external—concerned with loss of status or power. Objections in this category suggest that apologizing will terminate relationships, make us vulnerable, and open us up to excessive costs and punishment. Some objections to apology are primarily internal, prompting feelings of guilt, shame, humiliation, weakness, incompetence, defeat, or other factors that we avoid. These objections often flow out of two questionable assumptions. First, that apologizing makes us so vulnerable we can’t defend ourselves. Second, that the response to the apology will be punitive. Evidence does not support these assumptions.
At the heart of all these objections is what I believe to be the main reason why apology is so difficult. The main impediment to apologizing is that we can't control how our apology will be received. Apology, at its core, is really an exchange of shame and power between the offender and the victim. Apology involves a role-reversal. The apologizer relinquishes power and puts himself at the mercy of the victim who may or may not accept the apology. I think it’s this moment of uncertainty when we reverse roles that makes apology so excruciating. Even if we do manage to offer an apology, the reluctance to lose control results in defensive, half-hearted, and otherwise ineffective apologies for individuals and institutions.
Stepping Out of Resentment
Human beings often have a hard time stepping out of resentment. When we are hurt, we have a difficult time opening our hearts until the person who hurt us admits to being wrong and gives us an apology. We grieve for the relationships that have been strained, but we’ll be damned if we will make the first move and risk being hurt again. Former lovers and allies find themselves locked into negativity and conflict at the expense of the open-heartedness both claim to favor—if only the other side would make the first move.
We all know what happens when effective apology is not forthcoming. Lifelong friendships and important family relationships are ruptured. Often the details of the original offense are forgotten. After many years of grudge holding, often all that remains of the argument is the bitterness over not getting an apology. I have two cousins who have feuded for decades over some long-forgotten exchange of insults over some a rivalry regarding a long-forgotten boy. The energy that continues to fuel the resentment between these two women is the conviction of each cousin that her dignity requires the other to apologize first.
Every family seems to have a story like this. Apology is so powerful that failing to apologize for injuring someone can actually be more offensive than the injury itself. For example, if I borrowed your pristine bicycle and returned it covered with mud, you might consider it an annoying but fleeting offense. But if I refuse to acknowledge my thoughtlessness, much less offer an apology, you might be outraged. And why? Because my failure to apologize signals disrespect or even contempt, as if I had a right to. Such an attitude is a deal-breaker in any relationship.
Quarrels often escalate into serious conflicts on the fulcrum of apology. Back in the day when gentlemen fought duels, the animus was more often attached to the failure of the offender to apologize than to the offense underlying the apology. Throughout human history, endless cycles of revenge and untold suffering have resulted from the denial of effective apology. It’s a tragedy because apology has the power to defuse almost all human conflicts. I believe there are very few conflicts among human beings that could not be resolved with sufficient applications of apology.
Honoring just one principle can make our apologies more effective. Apology, like all communications, is ultimately determined by the recipient. If the recipient doesn’t perceive our apology as an apology, then the issue isn’t fully resolved. What this means in practice is that we must make certain our apology is more about the parties we offended and their need to be healed than about our own need to be right.
Putting the interests of others above our own is not easy. But that, in a nutshell, is what effective apology demands. Genuine apology emphasizes compassion for the wronged party, not redemption for the offender. Our apology must be grounded in the experience of the party we offended. When we can do that—when we can acknowledge the hurtful consequence of our words and actions on other people without evasion or defensiveness—we find that the interests of the victim and the offender are actually remarkably aligned.
About the Author:
John Kador is an author in Winfield, PA. His newest book is Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the book, please visit www.effectiveapology.com