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The value of a good apology

September 18th, 2009 6 comments

I heard something from two different individuals yesterday that I have not heard in a long time, a sincere apology. There were both very touching and not only wiped away all the tension and indignation that I was feeling, but also increased the respect that I felt for these individuals immeasurably.

Being a fan of patterns, and always seeking to look behind the curtain of reality, I wanted to find out the answers to three questions (1) what makes a good apology, (2) why did these words completely change my outlook so radically, (3) and indeed, what is the worth of this change. I took some time out to do just that, and this is what I found.

There is actually a ‘recipe’ for a good apology:

  1. take responsibility for what happened;
  2. explain how it happened;
  3. show how it won’t happen again;
  4. offer reparations, if appropriate.

This recipe makes sense. Let me explain why.

The hardest step is #1, as taking responsibility indicates that you are willing to bear the weight of the mess-up and serves to lower the defenses on both sides and clear the negativity in the air. It injects alot of clarity into a situation where either conflict or simmering resentment are beginning to take hold.

#2 further clarifies the situation, and gives the other person a chance to ‘be on the same page’, and also shows that you have invested the effort to actually understand the other individual’s point of view and examine the situation (and the root-cause if possible).

#3 actually makes your relationship with the aggrieved party even stronger, as you now have a shared experience to build on, and they have reassurances that this will not occur again, which is not the case with other people who have not been ‘tested by fate’ in the same way.

#4 brings things back to a fair, even keel, with you fixing whatever you’re broken, and showing in more than words that you actually care about what happened and care enough to more than make up for this. Hence, redoing work that has been done shoddily, replacing something you’ve broken with something equal or better, or purchasing a bunch of flowers for your wife to make up for the tasteless and disturbing comment, all are very appropriate and very welcome steps.

Why people do not apologize

People are scared of apologizing because they fear abandonment, stigmatization, damage to reputation, retaliation, or punishment (according to Aaron Lazare, author of ‘On Apology’). However, not apologizing is more likely to cause these reactions that you fear.

You may fear the reactions of the people to whom you apologize, such as losing the relationship, humiliation, punishment, etc. or may be embarrassed and ashamed of the seeing yourself as weak, incompetent, or in the wrong. However, an apology does not normally lead to these outcomes; these are usually irrational fears. Apologizing shows that you are taking responsibility, have empathy for the other individual and only makes you a better person.

The apology fulfills several possible psychological needs for the offended party, among them: restoration of self-respect and dignity, a sense of connection and shared values with the other person, a sense of safety in the relationship, assurance that the offense was not his fault and sometimes the sense that the offender is suffering from the harm. While it appears that the apology is for the person who was injured, the results for the person issuing the apology may be more dramatic. The apology often restores the person’s self-esteem and dignity, allows him the opportunity to make reparations and reconnects him with the other person.

It’s ‘the right thing to do’

So what’s the worth of a good apology? It’s way more than would be obvious. An article I resurrected from the Boston Globe has some very remarkable insights:

The hospitals in the University of Michigan Health System have been encouraging doctors since 2002 to apologize for mistakes. The system’s annual attorney fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year, said Rick Boothman, a former trial attorney who launched the practice there.

Oh no, I made a serious mistake !
So next time you mess up, don’t act weak. Step up to the plate and take responsibility. Apologize, show that you understand what went wrong, assure that other party that this will not happen again, and make reparations.