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.