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Friday, December 1, 2023

Apology – Sally Campbell

APOLOGY by Sally Campbell

What makes the simple act of apology so hard?

Why does a poorly-timed apology make matters worse?

When I explain why the wrong happened, shouldn’t that make it okay?

These are a few of the questions surrounding the “ouchy”, often complicated realm of apology. As children, we were often taught to say we were sorry when we didn’t feel sorry.  We learned that if we refused to apologize, things were going to get worse. We might’ve felt righteous (& rightful) indignation at the idea of apologizing, convinced that the other was at fault, not us. To add to our sense of injury, the adult(s) involved might not even have cared who was right, who was wrong.  They simply wanted the matter resolved and they saw an apology as a public act of contrition that the other party was obliged to accept, thus putting the dispute to rest. 

Alas, the world does not really work that way. Sometimes an apology is given in a tone of voice that merely heightens the acrimony. Lack of genuine remorse from the offender gets communicated nonverbally to the aggrieved person. Sometimes the apology is followed by minimization of the offence, or detailed justification. These kinds of responses erase the value of the apology and can easily create more inter-personal distance. The overt conflict may be considered to be “done with”, but really the conflict has just gone underground, or more dangerously, into the body, rather than being resolved.

 If the apology is given too quickly in an attempt to convince the offended person to “just get over it”, its value is lost. We live in a general culture that is busy and driven, that expects things to move quickly and efficiently. Matters of the heart move in kairos time, not chronos time. They are related to the spiritual and emotional aspects of our being, not the mental/rational aspects. This may be why we feel those old hurts, that unfinished business so strongly, even though they may be years in the past. The memory of the cut, the wound, is as if it occurred yesterday. An apology given before one is ready to really hear and receive it can go right over the offended person’s head. Timing matters. 

There are many ways to deliver an incomplete apology; certain expressions or turns of phrase mark it as such. Here are a few examples:

“If I did something to offend you, I am sorry.”

“I am sorry you feel that way”.

“I’m sorry you got so upset about it”.


None of these apologies show the speaker taking responsibility. They don’t acknowledge what was done or said that caused offense, they merely show regret that offense may have happened.

Aaron Lazare, MD, head of Psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School, has some wonderful insights on apology. He outlines what he sees as necessary steps to constitute a complete apology in his book, On Apology (Oxford University Press, 2004). Here they are in the context of private rather than public apologies.  

1.  Acknowledging the offense.

When we acknowledge we were wrong, both we and the offended party are assured we share certain values.  Effective acknowledging includes a fair and complete remembering of what happened, and how it was offensive to the other person. He says: “This places high demands on our truthfulness” (p.80), as there is often temptation to distort or to minimize. 

2. Communicating remorse

If we don’t feel genuine remorse or regret about what happened and our part in it, we may not be ready to apologize. As well, this aspect of an apology entails communication of a resolve to do something differently. Looking back, the apologizer accepts responsibility for the offense; looking forward involves commitment to avoid repeating the offending behaviour (forbearance).

3. Explanation

An explanation often helps the injured party understand the context, and can go a long way toward mending a torn relationship. “…explanations demystify offenses committed against us by telling us whether an offense was a random act, …how much responsibility we share for the offense and whether we should expect similar offenses in the future”(p.120). It is critical that the explanation not be given as an excuse or seen as an attempt to minimize the harm done. When that happens, the value of the apology is lost.

4. Reparations

Apologies often place us in the position of “one-down”. In order to restore balance to the relationship, the offender may need to offer reparations, either symbolic or real. Sometimes this is the most important aspect of an apology – to find ways to restore the loss. Other times, reparations are not enough, because the other critical aspects of apology have not been adequately addressed. 

One of the most helpful points of Lazare’s book is the idea that an apology is actually the beginning of making amends, not the end!

(Next week: Part 2)

Author: TIG

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