Apology is a thorny business.
Many people fear apology and its demands. As a result, we avoid apologizing and, if we can’t avoid it, we muddle through with wishy-washy apologies that make matters worse. The root of the problem is power. Apology is difficult precisely because it’s ultimately about transferring power. Specifically, apologies that hit home transfer power from the offender to the victim. That transfer of power is what makes apology feel so humiliating. It’s just one of the features of apology. Here are seven powerful truths that everyone who wants to extend an effective apology must understand.
1. Accept You Are an Asshole
Unapologetic apology demands a high level of empathy with the victim. This means that you, the apologizer, not only acknowledge that the victim has reason to conclude that you are an asshole, but on some level you have to agree with him or her. It’s painful to see ourselves as others see us, particularly when we did wrong. But doing so creates opportunities for genuine change. By acknowledging, naming, and ultimately accepting our mistakes, we embrace our humility and make room for our true selves, imperfect and all too human, just like everyone else. History demonstrates that acknowledging the facts—including those which make us look bad—is really the healthiest way to go.
2. Give Up the Last Word
There’s power in having the last word. But an effective apology requires that the last word be the victim’s. You don’t have to agree with the victim’s narrative—although you can probably learn something if you stop being so damn defensive. You just have to live with it. Of course, apology always goes better when the wrongdoer and the wronged agree on the facts. But that rarely happens. So you can battle over which version of the facts will prevail; that’s why we have courts and expensive lawyers. But if you are interested in apologizing, you will have to accept that an effective apology requires offenders to give up their battle with history and the right to have the last word.
3. Hoard the Blame
Yes, it’s true that most conflicts have shared responsibility, but if you are interested in a good apology, then accept all the responsibility. Every bit of it. Doing so is disarming and usually creates space for other parties to apologize for their share of the conflict. The act of accepting all responsibility for the conflict actually generates clarity about who you are in this world.
4. Value the Relationship Over the Need to Be Right
Apology is the practice of extending ourselves because you value the relationship more than you value the need to be right. It’s impossible for an apology to succeed if your need to be right trumps the survival of the relationship. Here’s the key: you can apologize and still be right while giving up the need to be right. It’s in the inflexible need to be right that offenders shelter the power and control they are loathe to relinquish. Of course, sometimes it’s totally legitimate to decide to fight for a principle even if the relationship is sacrificed. In those cases, no apology is warranted. Just be sure you’re defending a principle rather than your ego.
5. Be Vulnerable
Apology is difficult because apology makes us vulnerable. We fear that the victim will be punitive and our apology will be used against us. Evidence does not support this fear. In the last 25 years there has been plenty of evidence that wholehearted apology actually defuses hard feelings, reduces lawsuits, and secures better outcomes. Doctors and hospitals increasingly understand that a practice of disclosure and apology following medical error is actually cheaper than the old approach of deny and defend.
6. Extend Yourself
Apology is difficult because it requires you to do something and that something frequently requires you to open your checkbook. It’s called restitution. You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into. Every effective apology requires an action step to make the victim whole insofar as it is possible. That may mean writing a check to the victim or to charity. It may mean you have to lose a job, pay a fine, perform community service, or, in extreme cases, even go to prison. The bottom line is that you will have to be stretched in meaningful ways in order for an effective apology to land.
7. Admit You’re Not Infallible
Apology strips away the pretense of infallibility. Like truth, apology will set you free, but not before you are revealed to be imperfect. There’s only one thing worse than your imperfection being revealed: your imperfection remaining hidden. Secrets are a heavy burden. By confronting your mistakes, you can relinquish the effort needed to hide errors and other secrets. In a world where nothing stays hidden, powerfully acting as if you had nothing to hide demonstrates genuine leadership. In a broader sense, apology is cleansing to institutions and nations. One of apology’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully past generations pursued aims that now seem to be wrong, indefensible, and disgraceful.