“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize”. Muhammad Ali
(“PERSPECTIVES” are excerpts from my forthcoming book of the same name, available from Partridge Publications Q3 2015)
“I apologize”. Two of the most powerful words.
Humility leads to healing. Pride – to bitterness. Many times the choice is ours.
The definition of what a true apology is has changed over the years, and also means different things in different cultures and countries, often linked to social, legal and other consequences.
It currently encompasses a spoken or written expression and regretful acknowledgement of an offence, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged or caused a problem for another.
At the heart of the matter there is a party who has been wronged or feels wronged and another party that has done the wrong.
Apologies are meant to effect a redress and – if done correctly – can bring about healing to a fractured relationship, solace to the victim and relief to the person who did the wrong.
Three elements relating to the offender are important for this to be effective, i.e. the offender:
- acknowledges the wrongdoing and has genuine regret
- acknowledges the legitimacy of the hurt it caused the victim
- is placed in a vulnerable position, since the victim may not accept the apology. It, therefore, requires courage from the offender to offer the apology.
This last point i.e. the offender’s emotional vulnerability couched in humility is the positive element which may make it work and win back the respect of the victim.
Without these elements it is a fauxpology – a hollow attempt at an apology – that is often used to duck responsibility whilst shifting blame to the victim. They are staged, in-sincere, and insulting – all of which may strain an already bruised relationship further, resulting in bitterness.
Some people view “I am sorry, I was wrong” as a sign of incompetence or weakness – which they fear may lead to political or financial suicide. However, if done correctly it may in fact enhance a person’s standing.
Nobody is perfect.
We all make mistakes and do things that hurt others – sometimes through thoughtlessness, at other times perhaps more purposeful. In the aftermath we should have the guts to offer sincere apologies – stressing the value we place on relationships rather than personal pride. Content, timing and tone are also crucial.
Specific steps and actions in offering and accepting an apology make it effective.
When offering an apology:
- Be specific in explaining your offence.
- Do not be ambiguous – and do not shift the blame.
- Legitimize the victim’s feelings and pain.
- Take responsibility for your actions / words.
- Voice you regret followed by a sincere apology.
- Finally, point out how you will act in future to restore trust.
When receiving an apology:
You may accept or reject an apology depending on whether you have reconciled matters or need more healing time. Your response to an apology is thus critical for the future relationship with the offender.
- Respond with genuine acceptance if you are ready to accept an apology, demonstrating it with a sincere gaze and handshake or a hug.
- If you are not ready to accept it, indicate that you value the apology but need more time to heal. This is a tricky moment, since the offending party has made themselves vulnerable by honestly laying bare their honour in an act of humility – which they may now feel you reject.
Re-enactments of crimes are often done to offer victims and the community an entry-point in coming to grips with the effect of offences.
I had a chance to witness the re-enactment of a vicious robbery of a village family which was seen as a crime against community norms. The offenders had to face their victims – who this time knowingly had the upper-hand – and replay their crime at the scene in broad daylight and full view of the whole village.
The reversal of power was quite visible and whilst the role-play contained elements of catharsis – some of the thieves were forgiven by the family – a hollow apology from the remorseless ring-leader, who in fact came from the same village, was rejected and his family had to bear the cost of his time in jail.
An exchange of shame and power worked between the offenders and victims, whilst showing that at times mediation is required – in this case both police and villagers.
It may take years for an apology to be presented – or accepted. Our pastor mentioned a case where a pride-filled son reconciled with his mother on her deathbed by way of an apology for an action that separated them for more than 30 years. The ove that went missing during those hurting years and the mental pain suffered on both sides is incalculable.
A sincere apology delivers a number of benefits as has been seen during attempts to bring forth truth from offenders and reconcile them with their victims, i.e.
- It starts a process of emotional healing for both victims and offenders alike.
- It helps victims move past personal hurt and anger against offenders, bringing about a restoration of trust, dignity and a sense of justice, knowing that the offenders understand the pain they caused.
- Victims bestow empathy on – and eventually forgive – their wrong-doers.
- Offenders are not seen as personal threats anymore – in fact they stand emotionally naked in front of their victims.
- Brings peace and restore relationships.
Recent political history in the USA and elsewhere is littered with examples of non-apologies for outright lying to and deception of constituents on a range of subjects including sexual misconduct, denial of having had knowledge, incompetence, spying, self-enrichment and other assaults on the intelligence of those who were wronged. Fauxpologizers routinely try to avoid or minimize the effect of litigation and several states have now legislated against using an apology as evidence of liability – meaning that it cannot be used against the apologizer as evidence of negligence. This clears the way for an offender to apologize without fear of being sued for negligence.
Imagine – laws to protect you from any negative outcomes for apologizing!
From a spiritual perspective, apologies are a form of asking for forgiveness in light of repentance. There is an acceptance of responsibility, a regret and remorse followed by, if not a reparation or restitution, then at least a decision to strive to do better next time. These elements also find echo in many religions.
- Apologies cannot fix the past – but can bring about relief and reconciliation.
- The world is littered with fauxpologies – hollow insulting attempts that duck responsibility, shift blame and may strain already bruised relationships further, resulting in bitterness.
- At times it may take years for an apology to be presented – or accepted.
- A sincere apology delivers a number of benefits when reconciling offenders and victims.
- Apologies are a form of asking for forgiveness in light of repentance.
- Apologize when you offend people.
- Never fauxpologize.
- Apologize at the soonest opportunity.
- When offering an apology, be specific, sincere, acknowledge your offence, accept responsibility, voice regret and point out how you will act in future to restore trust.
- When considering an apology, respond with genuine acceptance or ask for more healing time.
- Do not live an apologetic life. Be your own person. You are equal to all on this planet.