Making Peace Through Apology

There are up to four parts to the structure of an effective apology. (Not every apology requires all four parts.) These are: acknowledgment of the offense; explanation; expressions of remorse, shame, and humility; and reparation.
Of these four parts, the one most commonly defective in apologies is the acknowledgment. A valid acknowledgment must make clear who the offender is (or has the standing to speak on behalf of the offender) and who is the offended. The offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offense. People fail the acknowledgment phase of the apology when they make vague and incomplete apologies (“for whatever I did”); use the passive voice (“mistakes were made”); make the apology conditional (“if mistakes have been made”); question whether the victim was damaged or minimize the offense (“to the degree you were hurt”); use the empathic “sorry” instead of acknowledging responsibility; apologize to the wrong party; or apologize for the wrong offense.

The next important phase of an apology is the explanation. An effective explanation may mitigate an offense by showing it was neither intentional nor personal and is unlikely to recur. An explanation will backfire when it seems fraudulent or shallow, as by saying, “The devil made me do it” or “I just snapped” or “I was not thinking.” There is more dignity in admitting “There is no excuse” than in offering a fraudulent or shallow explanation.

Remorse, shame, and humility are other important components of an apology. These attitudes and emotions show that the offender recognizes the suffering of the offended. They also help assure the offended party that the offense will not recur, and they allow the offender to make clear that he should have known better.

Finally, reparation is a way for an apology to compensate, in a real or symbolic way, for the offender’s transgression. When the offense causes damage or loss of a tangible object, the reparation is usually replacement or restoration of the object. When the offense is intangible, symbolic, or irreversible—ranging from an insult or humiliation to serious injury or death—the reparation may include a gift, an honor, a financial exchange, a commitment to change one’s ways, or a tangible punishment of the guilty party.

Within the above structure of apology, an effective apology can generate forgiveness and reconciliation if it satisfies one or more of seven psychological needs in the offended party. The first and most common healing factor is the restoration of dignity, which is critical when the offense itself is an insult or a humiliation. Another healing factor is the affirmation that both parties have shared values and agree that the harm committed was wrong. Such apologies often follow racial or gender slurs because they help establish what kind of behavior is beyond the pale. A third healing factor is validation that the victim was not responsible for the offense. This is often necessary in rape and child abuse cases when the victim irrationally carries some of the blame. A fourth healing factor is the assurance that the offended party is safe from a repeat offense; such an assurance can come when an offender apologizes for threatening or committing physical or psychological harm to a victim. Reparative justice, the fifth healing factor, occurs when the offended sees the offending party suffer through some type of punishment. A sixth healing factor is reparation, when the victim receives some form of compensation for his or her pain. Finally, the seventh healing factor is a dialogue that allows the offended parties to express their feelings toward the offenders and even grieve over their losses.

A causal relationship between apology and forgiveness is understandable based on this analysis of apology. The apology repairs the damage that was done. It heals the festering wound and commits the offender to a change in behavior. When the apology meets an offended person’s needs, he does not have to work at forgiving. Forgiveness comes spontaneously; the victim feels like his offender has released him of a burden or offered him a gift. In response, he often wants to return the gift by downplaying the damage done to himself, sharing part of the blame for the offense, or complimenting the offender in some way. Commonly, the relationship becomes stronger with a bond forged out of the honesty and courage of the offending party.

There are situations in which it is useful to forgive without an apology. One obvious example is where the offending party is deceased. Forgiveness then helps the aggrieved get on with his life. In other situations, where the unrepentant offender shows no signs of remorse or change of behavior, forgiveness can be useful, but reconciliation would be foolish and self-destructive. For example, a woman who has been abused by an unrepentant husband may forgive him but choose to live apart. Without an apology, it is difficult to imagine forgiveness accompanied by reconciliation or restoration of a trusting relationship. Such forgiveness is an abdication of our moral authority and our care for ourselves.

These situations aside, effective apologies are a tool for promoting cooperation among people, groups, and nations in a world plagued by war and conflict.