Article: The Gift of a True Apology
By Tom Esch, MA
A note from Shelli: Tom is, above all else, just a great guy. He has helped coach some of the Rukha staff and faculty in conflict resolution, a skill that is needed wherever two or more are gathered.
Tom Esch has been part of courageous conversations since 1969 when a whiffle ball game ended badly in the backyard.
He has a Master’s in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN. and a Master’s in Conflict Resolution from the Process Work Institute in Portland, Oregon. He spent 10 years in a religious community as a lay person and as an ordained leader. Tom is currently President of Creating Resolution, a company that helps people have conversations about uncomfortable yet necessary topics.
Every relationship has challenging moments. Part of what creates on-going conflict is an unspoken apology. It takes real courage to apologize authentically and is risky, especially if there are legal implications.
Sometimes apologies do not work. Sometimes they do. Here are some suggestions you can try on to ease the tension in your relationships at home or at work and achieve a relational breakthrough. It could be the greatest gift you ever give or get.
• Do some inner work and find out what you have done or not done that requires an apology. This will require your best emotional intelligence and inner-awareness. It might also involve journaling or prayer. It could involve feedback from a trusted friend or coach. Where did I make a mistake? Where did I omit something important? Do I truly feel remorse? This is challenging because a part of you will surely be saying “Yes, but they also did X or Y.” Ignore that voice. You can only take responsibility for your actions or omissions when it comes to an apology.
• If you go into shame at this point (shame = “I am a mistake” as opposed to healthy guilt = “I made a mistake”) then you might need some extra support to continue.
• If it is a letter you may want a close friend to review it first. This should be someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation. If it will be a conversation you will want to practice with someone, perhaps a professional like me.
• If it is going to be a conversation ask the person involved if you can talk with them about a mistake you have made with them. If they say “yes” then continue. If they say “no” do not push. If they will not let you contact them, which can be one of the most challenging situations, you might want to write them a letter, but be prepared to do some extra inner work to be effective in being authentic (and do not expect a response or change on their end).
• Admit your role in the situation and state it succinctly. The sooner you can get to the point, the better, as they are probably feeling nervous and perhaps not even fully listening since their flight-fight-freeze response may be activated just by the idea of addressing a difficult situation directly. Also if you speak too much it might recreate the very mistake you have been making: taking up too much airspace!
• Watch for a possible shallow apology or suggesting (even subtly) that they can get over it quickly and move on. You issue the apology, they decide whether to accept it, wait or refuse it. This is why you need to come from your heart, as much as you can. It can help to go deeper into why you did what you did, making sure to take full responsibility. “I said it because I was angry about the situation, but it was a deconstructive way to use my anger. I am sorry for my behavior.”
• Also watch for the tendency to apologize for their feelings not your actions. “I am sorry that you were so angry at me for crashing my car into your house.” OR “Sorry for the indignation you felt because I forgot to bring the turkey for Thanksgiving last year.” These are not authentic apologies and will likely aggravate the situation.
• After you told your story of your role in the situation, it is now important to briefly voice your understanding of how they might feel. “If someone did that to me I would feel angry and disrespected.” OR “I may have this wrong, because I do not know what was going on with you, but I am aware that my saying that may have caused you to feel X, Y or Z” OR “My behavior was unacceptable and I am working to change it.”
• It is now time to truly listen to their response. Possibly you missed the target of how they are feeling. Genuine listening is a challenge for all of us especially when we know we screwed up. Yet it is possible.
• The main point is to empathize with them and make eye contact. They might still be angry and worried you will do it again. They might respond with immediate acceptance and love.
• The next step is voicing what you are committed to in the future. “I am committed to making sure I have the turkey next year and will get support to make sure I remember it and this time it will be an organic one.” (the “organic” part might be going above and beyond, and might help create needed restoration)
• Finally, if their response is unclear you may want to ask them if they are able to accept your apology or if they need some time. When you do this you need to ask with as much humility as you can muster. Give them the space and opportunity to say “no”. Asking the other person to accept your apology will bring you even more satisfaction, especially if they accept it. This helps you complete the matter. If they don’t accept your apology, it is time to listen again (if they are willing to continue) or give them time and space to process your regret.
• Finally change your behavior. For this part you might need to call me or another coach.
• Bonus/extra credit: do something positive and symbolic for them—a gift, a special invitation, etc.