Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Complete Apology

My last blog was on apologies.  I thought I had found an effective formula for making a sincere apology, but I'm reconsidering my formula based on a blog I've just read.  It adds an aspect to apologies that I hadn't fully considered.   

At a teacher's training, blogger Jo Ellen was taught an approach to apologies that includes having the offending party consider why their behavior was wrong and how they'd change it in the future. I think this is an important expansion to the idea of apologies. My formulas for apologies focused on showing empathy to the person who was offended, but I think asking the offender to consider their own behavior is equally important.  Too often we say “we're sorry” automatically without truly considering how our behavior was out of line. When we have to think about our misbehavior, we articulate to ourselves what social norms we've crossed. We can't engage in excuses or blame someone else. This self reflection is not easy, and can make us uncomfortable or even ashamed, but perhaps this discomfort is needed to motivate us to change and consider new ways of acting in the future. 

So, what would adding this element to the example in my original blog look like? In my example, the offender is 15 minutes late for an appointment. The extended apology might sound something like this:    

“I'm sorry that I kept you waiting for 15 minutes. This is wrong because it annoyed and    inconvenienced you. I was not realistic about my schedule and being late is something I need to examine. In the future, I will not schedule things with you if I can't be on time. "

This is fully taking responsibility for behavior that has been hurtful. It articulates why it was wrong and what changes can be expected in the future.   

Jo Ellen also has a step that requests forgiveness: “Will you forgive me?” While I have a step that is about making amends, “How can I make this up to you?” I think that formally asking for forgiveness is important.  It's slightly different from making amends and should precede making amends.  Making this request gives the offended party the opportunity to choose whether or not to forgive. Whether the relationship is restored is now in their hands and it reverses the earlier power dynamics. Now the offender is vulnerable and dependent on the offended party's response.  Perhaps it equalizes things; perhaps this new balance creates the possibility of repair to their relationship.     

I have wondered if the step of making amends is necessary. It would seem that if you forgive someone, you do it without conditions. You accept that they are sorry for what they've done, they have understood the impact on you and will make changes in their behavior in the future. This sounds pretty thorough, but perhaps making amends allows an additional opportunity to check for any lingering feelings of resentment. What if the apology, while complete and sincere, doesn’t feel equal to the offense? Or what if this has been a repeated offense and only now is being truthfully addressed?  In either case, something more might be needed. 

Adding amends then makes sense. It might act as a safeguard to assure that things really feel resolved for both parties. If things feel resolved the offended party would just assert that they don't need anything else to happen.Yet, if something else is needed, an additional act might make the difference. In my example, maybe being late was a frequent offense, so agreeing to do some service would indicate a serious commitment to change. A repair act might be paying for dessert or arranging an outing to the movies, or performing some chore, etc. It will be unique for each person, but hopefully it will be a reasonable request that acts to equalize things and restore the prior friendship.

While these new elaborations might seem cumbersome, hopefully their thoroughness can best reduce resentment and get relationships back on tract. Below is my new formula for giving a complete apology.

“ This was my fault and I'm sorry for ... 
   a. Be specific - being late, calling you names, not telling the truth  

“This is wrong because.......
 a. Describe how your behavior was misguided 
 b. Describe how it hurt the other person    

“I keep you waiting and wasn't thinking of you. You were inconvenienced and made to feel unimportant.”
“I was unkind and called you names. I didn't act like a friend and it hurt your feelings. “
“I told a lie and acted like I didn't do something when I did. You told the truth and got punished and I didn't.”

 a. Emphasize what you will do differently in the future. Not what you won't do

“I'll watch the time and I won't be late when we've scheduled a time to get together.”
“I will keep my mean words to myself until I've calmed down.”
“I will tell the truth even when I'm afraid of the punishment.”


“ How can I make this up to you?”

Here is Jo Ellen’s blog “A Better Way to Say Sorry” 

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