Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: What Makes an Apology Effective in Healing?

The context of apologies are relationships, be they between friends, lovers, families or nations. The goal of an apology is reconciliation and restoration of bonds of love, trust, respect and humanity.

There are some people who are able to apologize in a way that restores and heals. There are others who use the words “I am sorry” as a Get Out of Jail Free Card, and there are many who suffer with guilt, shame and loss and don’t quite know what to say or how to apologize to those they have harmed.

What Makes an Apology Effective?

In his important book, On Apology,Dr.Aaron Lazare, gives us an answer.

He proposes that successful apologies, be they private or public, heal because they satisfy one, if not more, psychological needs. Here is a translation of Dr. Lazare’s list of needs. A successful apology meets at least one, if not more, of these criteria.

The Apology Must Restore Self-Respect and Dignity

Words or behavior that make a person feel everything from slighted, dismissed, to demeaned or humiliated assault a person’s dignity and sense of self. Often the person offended feels powerless and covers their feelings with thoughts of retaliation or grudges.

The offender must in his or her apology restore the self-respect and dignity of the offended by acknowledging his/her own culpability, error, betrayal etc. Essentially the offender must be willing to acknowledge a lack of personal dignity on their part.

I betrayed your confidence and acted in a way that violated our bond.

 The Apology Must Reaffirm and Reset the Shared Values of Both Parties

 By acknowledging that he/she has made a mistake, and that it won’t happen again, the offender reaffirms that there is a shared set of rules and values that have been violated. If the offender does not understand what is unacceptable about what they have done—there is no restoration of the shared belief system.

I apologize for lying about using the money. I know that to have a relationship, I can’t be dishonest. I will not assault your trust again.

The Apology must make it clear that The Offenses Were Not the Victim’s Fault

When someone has been physically or psychologically assaulted, there is a tendency to make sense of the offense by blaming self. Central to a true apology is that the blame belongs to the person apologizing. Apologizing by telling the wounded party, “ I’m sorry but you got me so angry” is not an apology. It is an excuse.

There is no excuse for my behavior to your family. I had no right to disrupt the holiday dinner. I will apologize to them.

An Apology Must Restore Physical Safety in a Relationship

 In situations of physical assault, domestic violence, mistreatment of children, an apology must not only reflect ownership of the offense, it must speak to the means to guarantee future safety.

I am so sorry that I hurt you. How could I do this? I must guarantee that this can never happen again. I have joined an Anger Management Group. I understand that I may need me to make other living arrangements for a while. We can work on a plan, if you want, with a professional.

 The Offender who is Apologizing Must Be Willing to Suffer the Consequences of the Offence

 There are times in criminal and even civil cases where central to the apology being accepted is some consequence being accepted by the offender. It is termed retributive justice. In personal relationships, the offender’s suffering is often obvious as they express remorse, shame or humiliation for their behavior. There are times, however, when the suffering that must be endured by the offender is the victim’s refusal or inability to accept the apology or postponement of acceptance. While the apology may be truly felt and well intended, it can not be contingent on the offended person’s acceptance. To due so is to disqualify the apology. Patience, remorse and acceptance of the offended party’s hesitation reflects ownership for the pain caused.

 I am truly sorry. I see that it is hard for you to believe or trust me. I am willing to talk about what else I might do to underscore my remorse. I can appreciate that you need time.

The Apology Includes Reparation for Harm Caused by the Offense

 In some but not all situations, reparation is an important aspect of a truly felt apology. We have all enjoyed the goodwill apology offered at Starbucks–When they fill your order incorrectly, they apologize and fill it again at no charge.

There are times when an event necessitates not only an apology; but some form of reparation in the name of those who have suffered.  An example would be the reparations offered after oil spills.

In personal relationships, the person apologizing often adds to their expressed remorse with reparative action.

There is no excuse for my never going to any of your concerts. I was wrong. I am so sorry I missed something so important to you. I have changed my schedule. I will be at your concerts.

 Room in the Apology for Meaningful Dialogue with those Offended

 In most cases, particularly in personal relationships, an apology is not a monologue that is offered, received and finished. A successful apology opens the space for dialogue. The offender shows interest in hearing what he/she has caused, the pain inflicted, the doubts, the loss of trust and the difficulty on the part of the offended of accepting the apology. The dialogue offers the offended an opportunity to bear witness to what they have suffered and to receive validation that the offense really happened. The offended is often moved by the offender’s willingness to listen. It is often experienced as a step toward restoring dignity, self-respect and trust.

 I think you understand how much you have hurt me. I believe that you are sorry.

 In life we do small,large, deliberate, sometimes unconscionable things that hurt and harm others. To feel remorse and shame, to accept consequences and to restore dignity and healing to those we have hurt, reflects our capacity to self-reflect, to be humbled, to empathize, to atone, and to reconnect with others and with a better self.

Ultimately an apology is a a bridge of possibility for healing and change.