Elizabeth Kent is a member of HCBC. For more than 25 years she has worked as a mediator, meeting facilitator, and trainer in conflict resolution. She enjoys helping people who work for nonprofits, state and county government, and religious organizations find solutions to challenging problems. She periodically writes a column on conflict resolution for The Friend, the newspaper for the Hawai’i Conference of the United Church of Christ. The content in this article appeared in the May 2022 edition.
Mistakes. We all make them. A forgiving neighbor once told me that it’s not the mistake that matters, rather, it’s what a person does afterward that really matters. This is profound wisdom.
Admitting mistakes is a tough thing to do. Apologizing can be a challenge.
Insincere apologies often add to the tension. Saying “I’m sorry I said that hurtful thing but if you hadn’t provoked me first, I wouldn’t have said it,” or “I’m sorry that it hurt your feelings when I asked if you wanted to eat another piece of cake; I meant to be helpful after you said you were pre-diabetic and watching your glucose levels” feel like fake apologies and leave the listener feeling more upset.
We all have our own ideas about a good apology. Experts in the field of negotiation have identified the following as important in making an effective apology:
- An expression of regret. Simply “I’m sorry.”
- An explanation – By stating the reasons why the offence occurred, you can convey that it was not intentional.
- Acknowledgement of personal responsibility. “It was my mistake” rather than offering a general statement like “mistakes were made.”
- The expression of a promise not to repeat the offence.
- An offer of repair. Ask the offended person what would mean the most to them rather than offering or doing what you think they need or what would alleviate your own guilt.
- A request for forgiveness.1
The explanation is tricky. Some explanations derail apologies. If it sounds like an excuse, the recipient of the apology may ignore the rest of the apology. The acknowledgement of responsibility, as well as a heartfelt and detailed description about ways the person apologizing will work at trying to ensure it won’t happen again, generally mean a lot to the aggrieved person.
Another piece of advice came from the minister at my friends’ wedding. It is short and sweet and easy to remember. He urged the newlyweds to remember four sentences, and to use them liberally in their marriage. They are:
- I was wrong.
- Please forgive me.
- I am sorry.
- I love you.
As a mediator, I witness heartfelt apologies that make a difference in the parties’ lives and bring solace. Often both the receiver and the giver of an apology express how the apology lifted a burden.
I also have seen some apologies fall flat and fail. What is the takeaway? If you want to apologize, consider these questions from the point of view of the receiver of the apology:
- Will that person be willing to hear an apology?
- If yes, what is the best way and the best time to apologize (hint: avoid time pressures and find a private place)?
If you do apologize, think about the points you want to share and deliver your apology authentically and deeply in a way that will be heard.
It is important to remember that just because you make an apology doesn’t mean the other person will accept it or reciprocate. Sincere apologies are not calculated; they are not offered with strings attached. Let it be enough that you communicated a heartfelt apology. You will likely sleep more peacefully knowing you have done what you can to remedy your mistake. Sometimes that is even enough to enable you to forgive yourself. But the challenge of self-forgiveness is a topic for another time.2
1 See https://www.unchainyourbrain.org/2019/03/04/how-to-make-an-effective-apology-and-why-making-one-is-good-for-your-self-development-conflict-management/, citing the work of Dr. Roy J. Lewicki, Dr. Beth Polin, and Dr. Robert B. Lount Jr.
2 Mahalo to Steve Kent (my brother) and Dana Curtis (a Sausalito mediator and friend) for their assistance.
Published in The Friend, Hawaii Conference United Church of Christ Newspaper, February 2022, Volume 38, Issue 1, Page 8.