An apology is often regarded as providing closure to a conflict situation. But how it’s done and the reasons for giving it can either bring about resolution or further resentment. So what constitutes an authentic apology and why? And how can it be delivered effectively?
One’s definition of an apology, like one’s attitude to conflict, influences how it is approached and its effectiveness for resolution.
An apology can be defined as: the acknowledgement of and responsibility for one’s part in a situation expressed with understanding and empathy.
To base an apology on understanding and empathy, removes power games from the equation and looks at long-term resolution. Conversely, if an apology is regarded as repentance for a wrong one has sustained, the power imbalance is perpetuated and may give rise future resentment, particularly if there is no absolution for the ‘sinner’. How one defines it, reflects what one seeks from it.
Our attitude to conflict also plays its part.
If one sees conflict as a fight to win, one may regard an apology as a loss or a prize. This can result in a tug of war in which both sides feel they deserve to win. This either leads to a stalemate, or to one party resentfully capitulating to the other’s demands. Conversely, if one fears conflict, they may be quick to apologise and claim full responsibility, even at the cost of voicing their true feelings and needs. In both cases there is no understanding of the situation, of one’s behaviour or each other.
Here are some examples of both attitudes:
- A dismissive: “Ok, I’m sorry!” (A.k.a “Whatever…!”)
- A resentful: “Is it an apology you want? Fine – I’m sorry! Happy now?”
- A dramatic: “You’re right, it’s me; I’m such an awful person . . .”
- An appeasing: “I’m sorry, it’s all my fault – can we just put it behind us now please?”
Such apologies perpetuate power games and achieve nothing.
For an apology to be effective, conflict needs to be approached as an opportunity for understanding and growth. By regarding the situation rather than the other as the problem, one can explore one’s attitudes and actions with sincerity, and acknowledge how these have contributed to the difficulty. An authentic apology recognizes the other’s needs as being equally valid and worthy of being respected.
In so doing, an apology becomes a process from which there is much to gain.
An effective apology constitutes:
As explained in the series What Happens When We Argue, respect and understanding of one another’s needs are eroded by the conflict cycle of blame and power games. Acknowledging the reasons for one’s actions and their impact shifts the focus from blame, to sincerity and empathy. Sincerity helps us explore the true reasons for our actions; while empathy helps to consider the other’s feelings and needs, as well as each other’s fallibility. Without acknowledgement there can be no responsibility.
When blame forms part of a conflict, responsibility can become the proverbial hot potato. Taking responsibility means focusing on understanding and resolution.
This is done by:
- Treating the situation and not the other as the problem
- Considering our assumptions about the situation and the other
- Exploring options to rectify the situation, whenever possible and applicable
Taking responsibility for one’s actions can deepen understanding of oneself and other; widen options of response in terms of how to apologise and how to address the situation.
An apology is effective when one has learned and grown from the situation as well as from the interaction.
As we saw in the series “What Happens When We Argue”, our personal assumptions act like magnets that attract people and situations to us. So that the people we are experiencing a difficult situation with, are actually the mirrors of our hidden qualities and beliefs. No matter how we feel about them, they can actually be regarded as allies rather than foes. Exploring what they represent for us, brings about greater understanding about the dynamic and our behaviour.
So how can we apologise effectively?
What we have learned from the situation about ourselves and the other, informs the content of our apology, but is not its focus. For an apology to be effective, the centre of attention needs to be the receiver. His/her position and role is as an equal, rather than judge and absolver of our repentance, or the audience to our self-discovery speech!
In other words, we focus on the three principles, acknowledgment, responsibility and understanding so that the listener hears all three sincerely. For the apology to be effective, the receiver needs to feel that their needs have been acknowledged as valid and equal.
As such an effective apology might look like this:
“I’m sorry for going to our line manager before discussing the situation with you. I realize that me doing that meant that you had that difficult meeting with her, instead of asking you if we could make the time to discuss it together.”
While the focus is on the listener receiving an authentic acknowledgement of the situation, the speaker takes responsibility without inviting either blame or absolution. It is then up to the receiver whether they talk about the situation to explore future options or not. It is important to remember that one cannot force another to talk, nor to change!
Irrespective of the possibility of dialogue, an effective apology provides mutual gains:
- The receiver does not hear excuses or is blamed in self-defence, and
- The speaker has gained personal understanding and grown from the situation.
In the event of no further discussion, the speaker can draw on what they have understood about themselves in order to approach the dynamic differently in the future.
An authentic apology is a process of mutual gain, with acknowledgement, understanding and empathy as is its prize.
Like the causes of conflict, what triggers the demand for an apology is an unmet need for equality of validity as a person and the need to be treated with respect. In mediation, the need for an apology is often an influencing factor in determining the sum demanded by the aggrieved party. The money, like a demand for an apology, often reflects the need to be treated with respect.
Once an authentic and sincere apology comes, the sum lowers. Equally, in social relations an effective apology can improve the dynamic of the relationship.
To acknowledge one’s actions and their contribution to the situation is to allow the other to be valued and treated with respect and to open options for future responses.