On Apologies


by Gregorio Billikopf

August 2013

Gregorio Billikopf We must first recognize our error before we can make things right. While never easy, it is even harder when such recognition requires a public acknowledgement—an apology—to those we have injured.

It is not surprising that most of the apologies we hear are quasi-apologies at best, if not outright justifications and blame misdirected at the injured parties. We often hear such false expressions of regret such as “If you’re hurt, I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry, already!” And, “I am sorry, but ...”

A true apology requires a great deal of humility and includes a sincere expression of regret, changed behavior and, when possible, restitution.

Some people attempt to make things right by changing behavior without openly recognizing mistakes. This partial effort at making things right is seldom enough.

Even more difficult than public recognition of our mistake, is a willingness to hear, directly from the injured party, precisely how much pain we have caused. It is natural to wish we could shield ourselves from the discomfort of vicariously re-living these moments—and instead try and compensate in other ways.

Nor can we decide that it is now time to be fully forgiven. This impatience again shows our lack of humility. Furthermore, we are making it harder for the person we have injured to heal—and ironically, extend the period of resentment they may have toward us.

Another ineffective apology is the empty expression of regret. That is, apologies which are not accompanied by a change in behavior. For example, in cases of domestic violence (physical, verbal or emotional) it is not uncommon for the aggressor to be contrite after beating his wife. By the next day, he may have begun to minimize the damage, start to blame her, and not long thereafter begin striking her again. Domestic violence is a very serious matter that requires professional help. As powerful as an apology can be, when an individual rescinds it by word or deed, it would have been better if no regrets had been offered.

All these shortcuts to a true apology are like building on a poor foundation. If we notice that the concrete foundation for the structure we are building is faulty, we can close our eyes and continue work at our own peril. As painful as it may seem, the sooner we recognize our mistake, make the necessary expenditures to break up and remove the concrete foundation, and start over, the better off we will be. Depending on how far into a project we are, this can be quite painful and expensive.

Part of the process of acknowledging we need to make alterations is to announce the change in behavior—in the form of a goal—which will help us improve our interpersonal approach. For example, if we have been extremely critical in the past, we can let people we offended know that we will try to get rid of that bad habit.

The topic of forgiveness is just as complex. A person who cannot forgive and holds on to his pain suffers much more than the offending party. When we have forgiven we do not continually remind others of the offense. Some comments and deeds are so hurtful, however, that substantial time may have to transpire before we can be free of the associated pain.

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Biography




Gregorio Billikopf Encina is a Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California. His agricultural extension research and teaching efforts have focused on such topics as employee selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision, interpersonal relations, conflict resolution, and negotiation skills.



Email Author
Website: www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7conflict/

Additional articles by Gregorio Billikopf



Comments



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 Clarence ,   New York    09/04/13 
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I think it also makes a difference when one clients wish to render an apology versus being asked to provide an apology. I'm seriously baffled by those that request them, even when they are aware that they are meaningless.
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 Theresa ,   Mesa AZ    09/04/13 
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Yes, you do bring out good points on apologies. I found (when I was mediating) that mediators also were clueless in how to help those who wanted to apologize. Mediators also hindered children from apologizing (when adults and children were involved in the mediation process) b/c mediators believed that it would be too embarrassing for the adult (who also was the source of the conflict). I also found that Hispanics/Mexicans and Native Americans were more willing to apologize and to also accept apologies (in lieu of money in some cases ... though they wanted a complete explanation for the person's actions). Mediators also do not know how to include an apology in the agreement b/c they believe the court does not want to see it. Mediators are also suspicious that the person is just wanting to gain sympathy and get out of paying lesser restitution. Too often mediators interject their own conclusions and feelings into the process (e.g., passing judgment) and squash any opportunities for allowing forgiveness into the process. People need to understand that apologies may not be accepted (today, tomorrow or years to come) but that it takes greater strength to apologize than most people realize.
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 Clarence ,   New York    09/04/13 
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Gregorio, You bring up some good (and interesting) points on the subject of apology/contrition. Over the past two years, I have struggled (immensely) over this very issue. It seems as though apologies are often empty, and this, it seems, as more to do with the way we are taught as children. Parents, teachers and virtually anyone in a position of authority prompt children to apologize when they hurt or upset someone, which makes this more of a reflexive action than a genuine one. The foundation you speak of has to start early, as unlearning bad habits (such as the empty and meaningless apology) is a challenge for those that wish to unlearn them, and almost impossible for those that have no desire to change this behavior. The path to forgiveness is indeed a challenging one, but how do we reconcile this when those on the receiving end of the apology are content with the empty ones?
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