Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Power of Apology

In twenty years or so as a family counselor, I’ve observed some of the habits and attitudes that make families work well. One of them—one that is all too rare in American culture—is the willingness to apologize.

Unfortunately, Americans view an apology as a sign of weakness—whereas in reality, it’s just the opposite. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not threatened by owning up to the fact that I made a mistake, or that things didn’t go well.” It’s also a way of saying, “I respect you enough to be honest with you.”

When people haven’t been getting along, an apology by either side is just the opposite of “throwing down the gauntlet.” It’s sending a signal that says, “I don’t want to fight with you. I want to get along with you.” An apology is often the essential first step in mending a relationship. In working with troubled families, if I can’t persuade someone to apologize, and thus signal the willingness to abandon conflict, I know that I may not be able to help them.

When people have been in conflict with one another, trust has been destroyed. They eye each other suspiciously, wondering if they should be ready for another attack. Until someone apologizes, tension and distrust are likely to persist, compromising any chance of making real progress toward healing the relationship.

It’s important to realize that an apology is not an admission of wrong doing. It’s an expression of regret—regret that there are bad feelings, that the relationship is broken. When gears in a motor freeze up, a little oil is sometimes the only way to get the mechanism working again. In relationships, an apology is often that drop of oil.

President Obama, a man of extraordinary diplomacy, uses many tools to help establish—or reestablish—good communication with other countries. Those who continually second guess him, criticizing him for being gracious and respectful to other nations and their citizens, are simply displaying their own ignorance, bad manners, and lack of foresight.


Anonymous said...

Apology is also a necessary step in the forgiveness process. We hear a lot of psychobabble about forgiveness being necessary for healing and are often given the impression that forgiveness is one-sided, but the reality is that unless the injuring party expresses some degree of contrition, it's very hard if not impossible to forgive. We can "let go" and refuse to be controlled by hatred for the one who injured us, but until we hear that "I'm sorry" we can't say the "I forgive you" that results in true emotional release. This is true whether it's individuals, corporations, or countries. I think lots of us would like to hear a true apology from those whose greed caused the current credit/banking crisis. It wouldn't give us our invested dollars back, but it would at least make us feel better. Maybe an apology for sending our young people off to fight a dubious war in a foreign country would help too. And definitely apologies to the countries we have bullied to impose our will on the world are in order. Who knows? Maybe through some well-placed apologies we can actually see some reconciliation.

Citizen Jane said...

Agreed! It's not only hard to forgive those who've never apologized but it may also be unwise. There's a lot of truth to the old expression, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." It would be irresponsible of us to "forgive and forget" and let the same kinds of things happen again.