Three parts of an honourable apology – recognition, responsibility, restoration.
We all make mistakes, and it would be unproductive to base any ideas about honour on a requirement to be super-human and perfect in all things. It’s not freedom from error that defines a person’s honour so much as what we do when we cock up. I started dissecting the idea of apology for my son, who is always full of questions about how things work and why. What is the difference between a good apology, and a hollow one? This is what we came up with.
First there must be recognition of what the problem is. It’s easy to say ‘I’m sorry’ without ever grasping what the problem is. Saying it to make the complainant go away may be easy, but it’s not very honourable. Expressing recognition of the cause of the problem shows the person who you are talking to, that you are taking this seriously. You are taking them seriously, and you care. Also, without the clarity that you understand the problem, the other two stages are impossible. Often, when we err it’s not in malice, but in ignorance or obliviousness. When that happens, the recognition stage means taking the time to find out what happened. It may be that the other person was hurt by something we did not intend should hurt them, or that we would not be hurt by. In those circumstances, it can be easy to reject the wounded one, and add to their sense of injustice. Recognising the problem means that doesn’t happen. “I hear you,” is a powerful thing when it is meant.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is not a true apology. It may count as sympathy. A true apology takes responsibility. If you’re clear about where the problem was, that’s not difficult, which is why stage one is so important. It can become more complex when you don’t feel responsible – if the other person seems to have over reacted, misread your intentions or otherwise got the wrong end of the stick. It can be tempting, in such situations to say “I hear you, but it’s not my fault,” and sometimes that is indeed the best call. Being pressured into apologising for something you had no control over, is not helpful, nor is it good for you. So, the recognition of responsibility stage may require that the other person recognises where their own responses, assumptions, baggage etc have come into play. But if you do the recognition stage, and approach this without accusation or a desire to blame, it can resolve matters. More often than not, there’s some detail that we can improve. Some small way of being kinder, recognising a vulnerability, treading gently, that helps improve things. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, but I realise I have.” That kind of language can work miracles.
Finally we come to the restoration. If you are truly sorry, then it is important to mend what has been damaged. There isn’t always a physical thing to fix, but a promise to be more careful in the future, to remember what has happened here and not let it happen again, can make a lot of difference. “I had no idea that would upset you. I won’t behave in that way again.” If it’s meant, the promise helps to heal damage.
This is not just a model for apologising, but also for accepting apology. It’s no good taking the moral high ground and then refusing to acknowledge one, or all of these stages. When we feel wounded, it’s important to be clear about why, not assume the other person should know, or automatically think it was done deliberately. We have to give time and space to considering responsibility, and look at our own share. If we are offended, how much of that belongs to us, and how much to the offence? It can vary a lot. And if we can, it is better to let others fix things they have broken, it rebalances the relationship. Then, whatever went wrong can all be let go of, lesson learned. It doesn’t lie around festering unpleasantly.
Hollow apologies that we do not mean and will not act on, are not very far from outright lies, but they sound good. They sound like we care. It’s important not to let the hollow apology through, not to accept them when they come, and not to give second, third, fourth chances based on them.