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On Apologies

We must first recognize our error before we can make things right. While never easy, it is even harder when such recognition requires a public acknowledgement—an apology—to those we have injured.

It is not surprising that most of the apologies we hear are quasi-apologies at best, if not outright justifications and blame misdirected at the injured parties. We often hear such false expressions of regret such as “If you’re hurt, I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry, already!” And, “I am sorry, but …”

A true apology requires a great deal of humility and includes a sincere expression of regret, changed behavior and, when possible, restitution.

Some people attempt to make things right by changing behavior without openly recognizing mistakes. This partial effort at making things right is seldom enough.

Even more difficult than public recognition of our mistake, is a willingness to hear, directly from the injured party, precisely how much pain we have caused. It is natural to wish we could shield ourselves from the discomfort of vicariously re-living these moments—and instead try and compensate in other ways.

Nor can we decide that it is now time to be fully forgiven. This impatience again shows our lack of humility. Furthermore, we are making it harder for the person we have injured to heal—and ironically, extend the period of resentment they may have toward us.

Another ineffective apology is the empty expression of regret. That is, apologies which are not accompanied by a change in behavior. For example, in cases of domestic violence (physical, verbal or emotional) it is not uncommon for the aggressor to be contrite after beating his wife. By the next day, he may have begun to minimize the damage, start to blame her, and not long thereafter begin striking her again. Domestic violence is a very serious matter that requires professional help. As powerful as an apology can be, when an individual rescinds it by word or deed, it would have been better if no regrets had been offered.

All these shortcuts to a true apology are like building on a poor foundation. If we notice that the concrete foundation for the structure we are building is faulty, we can close our eyes and continue work at our own peril. As painful as it may seem, the sooner we recognize our mistake, make the necessary expenditures to break up and remove the concrete foundation, and start over, the better off we will be. Depending on how far into a project we are, this can be quite painful and expensive.

Part of the process of acknowledging we need to make alterations is to announce the change in behavior—in the form of a goal—which will help us improve our interpersonal approach. For example, if we have been extremely critical in the past, we can let people we offended know that we will try to get rid of that bad habit.

The topic of forgiveness is just as complex. A person who cannot forgive and holds on to his pain suffers much more than the offending party. When we have forgiven we do not continually remind others of the offense. Some comments and deeds are so hurtful, however, that substantial time may have to transpire before we can be free of the associated pain.


Gregorio Billikopf

Gregorio Billikopf is an emeritus Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California and a visiting professor of the Universidad de Chile. His research and teaching efforts have focused on organizational productivity (selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision) and interpersonal relations (interpersonal negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation).  MORE >

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