Two Words That Make a Difference

(A version of this article appeared in Family Circle, November 1998.)

What happens when what you say or do injures someone you care about? Consider the following three examples:

“I’ll be home at five o’clock, sharp,” Dennis said as he headed for work. He and wife, Jodie, had promised to pick up the team equipment for Teddy’s Little League game, then pick up two of Teddy’s teammates.

By 5:20 p.m. Dennis hadn’t arrived home, hadn’t called, and couldn’t be reached on his cellular telephone. At 5:30 p.m. Jodie frantically called a parent already at the ballpark, and asked him to go back and get the equipment while she and Teddy rushed to pick up the other kids. The equipment, Jodie, and the three children were late. Teddy’s team was charged with a delay of game and had to forfeit. Several parents accused Jodie of being “irresponsible,” and Teddy cried all the way home.

Dennis breezed into the house at 8:30 p.m. “I got tied up in a meeting and couldn’t break away,” is all he said.

As sisters growing up, Karen and Andrea each promised to make the other her maid of honor. So when their mother called Karen and told her Andrea had asked Rachel, a college friend, to be her maid of honor, Karen felt hurt and angry.

When Andrea finally called, Karen could hardly speak. “I’m crushed,” she cried.

“I’m sorry if you’re disappointed,” was Andrea’s response. Karen didn’t attend her sister’s wedding, send a gift, or offer the couple best wishes. In fact, the sisters haven’t spoken since.

Kristin thought Sally was a good friend until, at a meeting of a committee the two served on, Sally took credit for a brochure Kristin had single-handedly completed for their club’s fund-raiser. To add insult to injury, Sally completely ignored Kristin all evening.

After several days, Kristin called Sally. “I was hurt by your conduct at the committee meeting…,” she began. Sally interrupted, her response incredulous: “I regard you as a good friend,” she quipped, “I would certainly never do anything to hurt you.”

Dennis, Karen, and Sally say there’s no need to say they’re sorry.

Wrong! says Ralph Earle, Ph.D., psychologist and family therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona, who counsels families in crisis who are going through complex apology processes in order to heal major injuries. “There’s nothing that damages a relationship more — sometimes even severing it altogether — than the lack of a genuine apology when you have offended someone you love.”

Why apologize? Living in a civilized society means abiding by a moral rule: we agree not to harm (take advantage of) each other. So, in our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers, there is the need to apologize to those we injure.

Because, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, Chancellor/Dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, “An apology has the power to generate forgiveness.” Conversely, the absence of an apology after an offense, or pro-offering what Dr. Lazare calls a pseudoapology, attempt to ignore or excuse the offender’s bad behavior.

Such egocentricity and insensitivity towards others, experts agree, is all-too-common in our society, and it’s contributing to creating a nation of moral weaklings; and a meaner America.

When do we need to apologize? While an accident like bumping into a stranger on the sidewalk requires only a simple “Excuse me,” or “Sorry,” a personal offense that attacks and lowers a person’s self-image creates a real social wound. Not apologizing for such an offense is symptomatic of our society’s obsession, experts say, with “me first,” success and winning at all cost.

In very public displays, we’ve seen the weak and tangled motives of self-interest and saving-face play-out in national and international pseudoapologies aimed at gaining sympathy or a moral advantage for the offender.

What some call the “Jimmy Swaggert syndrome” (you may remember the evangelist who, after being caught in a motel room with a prostitute, made an extremely emotional televised display of contrition) may be a bid, Dr. Earle says, for a cheap personal catharsis: “cheap grace.” Offenders often make pseudoapologies, he says, in attempts to escape their due punishment.

Bob Packwood would certainly qualify here for his very public pseudoapology in response to countless charges of ethical and legal misconduct. Mr. Packwood stated that if he was guilty (of things he, himself, had written in his diary), he was certainly sorry: “I’m apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.” But, of course, he didn’t take responsibility.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Real apologizing isn’t for sissies. Our beliefs about apologizing are wrong, the experts say. “We have somehow in our society,” says Dr. Lazare, “come to believe apologizing is a sign of personal weakness. It isn’t. Apologizing is a sign of real character and personal strength.” In fact, Dr. Lazare and Dr. Earle agree that offering a genuine apology is one of the most difficult things we will ever do. It takes an act of moral courage and security in who you are to admit weakness, failure and wrong doing. But, adds Dr. Lazare, “The stronger you are, the more you can eat humble pie.”

Often, in our society, the offender believes that if she accepts responsibility for offending she’ll be somehow weakened, or will suffer a loss of respect. She may fear experiencing shame, or being made to jump through hoops to right the wrong. But the truth is, a genuine apology is a solution. It can eliminate the problem; restore the relationship. Apologizing can heal both the offended and the offender. It clears the offender’s conscience, eliminates the build-up of troublesome emotional baggage, and makes the offender feel much, much better about herself.

What makes an apology work?

We can certainly offer words of apology without feeling real remorse, and when we have only slightly and unintentionally injured someone in a way that isn’t personal, this may be adequate. But, for a serious personal offense, real remorse or regret, guilt, and shame are necessary. A real apology, Dr. Lazare notes, transfers the shame of the offense, which (in the act of offending) you placed on the other person, back onto yourself. “This is an exchange of power between you and the other person. The offended person suffered a loss of power in the offense. …Apologizing gives that person, whose self-concept was lowered by the injury, the power to forgive.” And it’s this exchange, Dr. Lazare says, that allows the healing process to begin. Without this demonstrated remorse, he adds, the offended person will doubt your sincerity.

What are the essential ingredients of an effective apology?

For an apology for a serious personal injury like those leveled by Dennis, Andrea, and Sally, to work — for it to open the door to heal the effects of the offense and restore the relationship — the offender needs to:

Properly time and measure her apology.
For a minor offense like failing to introduce someone, or interrupting someone who’s speaking, apologizing immediately prevents a small offense from becoming a large one.
But when a serious personal offense has been made, like an extramarital affair, it may take time for both the offended and the offender to integrate the impact of the offense before an apology can be made or received.
It’s important to note, too, that the apology must match or measure up to the offense and it’s consequences. Don’t expect, Dr. Earle says, that after years of neglect, for example, a simple “I’m sorry” will set things right.

Acknowledge and accept responsibility for the offense. This is really three steps, Dr. Lazare states:

  1. acknowledge you have violated a moral code,
  2. accept responsibility, and
  3. understand and acknowledge the impact of the

“Acknowledge that an offense was committed, and that you did it,” says Dr. Lazare. “A person cannot meaningfully communicate sorrow unless (she) knows and acknowledges what (she) is sorry for.” In owning up to what you did, show that you understand that it violated the moral code between you and the person you offended: standards such as honesty, fairness, faithfulness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, or loyalty. This step, says Dr. Earle, requires complete candor.

“It’s important to name the offense,” stresses Dr. Lazare. “And be very specific,” Dr. Earle instructs. “Don’t talk in generalities, or gloss over it.”

Dennis might begin with, “Jodie, I promised you I’d be home at five o’clock sharp, and I didn’t show…” Andrea might say to Karen, “I know that we promised we’d be each other’s maid of honor at our weddings, and I broke my promise…” Sally can be candid by telling Kristin, “I need to apologize. I took credit for the wonderful job you did…”

Connect the injury to the person. State how you believe the offense injured the person’s self-image: the story we believe about ourselves. This validates the person’s feelings of being ignored, belittled, betrayed, or humiliated. And it demonstrates that you understand the nature of your wrongdoing, and the impact it had on the person you wronged.

“It’s important that you understand how what you did affected the offended person,” says Dr. Lilli Friedland, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. The offense, she says, can only be measured by its real impact on someone else. “This helps us take responsibility for the consequences of our behavior.” Dennis, Andrea, and Sally might then continue, “I know this must have hurt you very much.” Then, it’s good to listen. The offended person will often, if given the opportunity, tell you how she felt injured.

Explain. State why you committed the offense, or give the extenuating circumstances. “And do so without taking the low road of offering a pseudoapology,” Dr. Lazare says.

But don’t, experts warn, manufacture an excuse. For example, if you were late to meet with a friend because you were held-up for twenty minutes in traffic, you should relate that fact. But making up a traffic story to cover-up for the fact that you thoughtlessly made three extra phone calls instead of leaving your office on time will smell like the manufactured excuse it is.

By giving a factual explanation, Dr. Lazare notes, you can help to protect the offended person’s self-concept. It tells your friend that you realize her time is important and you value it; there was an unavoidable reason you were late. It can also help to protect your (the offender’s) self-concept: you are the kind of person who intends and tries to keep your commitments; there was an unavoidable reason you were late. In Dennis’ case, he should tell Jodie, “I got into an unplanned meeting with a client at the golf course, and I didn’t realize I had left my phone in the car. The time slipped away, and by the time I looked at my watch and then called you, you were gone.”

Communicate your regret. This, experts agree, must come from the heart. It should contain a statement of your emotions of anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame, Dr. Lazare says. Anxiety and sadness, he explains, convey anticipation of the loss of the relationship; guilt expresses distress over causing damage to the offended person; and shame expresses your distress in failing to live up to your own standards.

State your decision to change your future behavior: if this were to happen again, you would act differently. The origin of the word repent means to change directions. In most religious teachings, it also embraces repudiating or denouncing the act. Dennis might say to Jodie, “I feel horrible about leaving you in the lurch. I acted irresponsibly. I let the meeting totally absorb me, and I didn’t watch the time…” He could add, “I’m going to try very hard not to do this again. In the future I resolve to keep my promises to you firmly in mind. …And my telephone with me…”

Make reparations. The offense creates a debt which needs to be repaid. “Reparations are often symbolic,” says Dr. Lazare. “The apology is (often) part or all of the repayment…” But when you’ve broken something borrowed from a neighbor, for example, reparation also means that in addition to apologizing, you have the item properly fixed, or replaced.

Dr. Earle works with families in crises, where offenses often include many years of abuse, infidelity, or chronic alcoholism. “There needs to be a very strict plan for change as part of the apology process in these cases,” he says. “One by the offender, and one by the offended.” Both parties, he says, must enumerate what they need the offender to do, and “there needs to be precise behavior set down and then achieved before full forgiveness can take place.” Your offer for future conduct is a kind of social contract which says that you want a harmonious relationship with the other person.

After the apology, closure may best be accomplished and rapport reestablished by making conversation on an unrelated detail or a neutral subject. This often eliminates any remaining awkwardness. But don’t rush it, or it could take away from the effectiveness of your apology.

Let’s rewrite the endings of the examples. After Dennis and Jodie have had a few hours to assimilate what his offense meant, Dennis begins by accepting responsibility and naming the offense: “Jodie, I promised you I’d be home at five sharp so we could all go to Teddy’s Little League game together, and I didn’t show. I completely let everyone down.”

He explains: “I got into an unplanned meeting with a client at the golf course, and I didn’t realize I had left my phone in the car. I got totally absorbed in the meeting, and the time just slipped away. By the time I looked at my watch it was five thirty. I called, but you were gone.”

This opens the way for Jodie to tell Dennis how she was humiliated, but most of all, she tells him she was angry because the offense hurt Teddy and the team.

After Dennis listens carefully, he is ready to begin the regret step of his apology. “I feel especially horrible about leaving you in the lurch, simply because I acted irresponsibly and didn’t watch the time…” Then Dennis finishes with his promise for future conduct.

But Dennis’ also owes Teddy and the team an apology. He can’t, of course, make up for the team’s forfeit, but Dennis can do a type of reparation by treating the team to a special end-of-season party which they would have gotten if they had won the championship. For Jodie, it was a dozen white roses — her favorite — and a sweet card of love, reaffirming his commitment.

Andrea, after taking responsibility for breaking her childhood promise to her sister, and naming it, explains that because she and Karen had had a rift, she decided not to ask Karen to be her maid of honor. Andrea apologizes for being so “petty and vindictive,” then communicates her regret: “I’ve had a chance to think about it, and I feel horrible. I broke a sacred promise. Karen, I love you very much. I’ve hurt you very deeply, and I’m ashamed of myself. I’m going to try very hard not to hurt you ever again.”

Andrea’s apology is most of the needed reparation, but she also asks her sister to be the godmother of the child the couple is planning to have soon.

Sally might say to Kristin, “I must apologize for not correcting the statement Vickie made during the committee meeting, giving me credit for completing the seminar brochure. It was wrong of me to take credit. After thinking about it, I realize I envied your very fine work.

“I sincerely apologize. I’ve called the other committee members and told them you are the person who did such a wonderful job, and I’m putting a special thank you in our newsletter.” Sally listens while Kristin tells her how Sally’s behavior hurt her.

“I know it’s going to take a long time to make up for such awful behavior, but I’m going to try very hard to prove to you I’ll never do anything like that again,” Sally promises. She asks Kristin to join her for a luncheon and fashion show she knows Kristin is dying to attend.

For Jodie, Karen, and Kristin these apologies have begun a healing. Dennis, Andrea, and Sally know they still have some work to do, but they feel so much better having cleared their consciences and restored the relationships.

The process of apologizing for a personal offense, Dr. Lazare reminds us, is a dynamic transaction between two people, not a pat recipe. It may take negotiation. But it must start with a genuine desire on the part of the offender to right a wrong. And the wounded person must place a higher value on the relationship than on nurturing a wound.

When someone won’t apologize? To heal and restore a relationship if you have been offended, experts advise, you may initiate the process by asking for an apology.

If the offense is a serious personal one, and the offender doesn’t apologize, the offended person may proceed by expressing her feelings about the wound. But this is often difficult, Dr. Lazare says, because she has already been wounded, and to openly discuss her pain makes her even more vulnerable. Start, he advises, with something like, “I found your behavior/statement offensive…” or “I was troubled by…” If no apology is forthcoming, the wounded person may then actually decide to discontinue the relationship. The most common reasons people don’t apologize, Dr. Lazare says, is because of pride (fear of shame), egocentricity, or fear of the offended person’s response.

When your apology isn’t accepted? The most common reasons why the offended person resists forgiving the offender is the sense of power in seeing herself in control — virtuous, while the offender is disgracefully powerless. Or, sometimes the offended person no longer wishes to continue the relationship, and feels that forgiving the offender will perpetuate it.

But don’t, experts advise, give up easily. If you value the relationship, exert every effort to negotiate and work through the apology process to its healing end.

We all know that failed apologies — those not given, those botched or those not accepted — can produce ruptured relationships, life-long grudges, and embittered efforts at vengeance. Remember, an apology demonstrates strength of character. It takes courage. It says you are committed to a high moral code and to your relationship with the offended person. It offers the opportunity for transforming healing to take place for both the offended and the offender. Apologizing says that although you make mistakes and have weaknesses, you are a strong and good person.