The Incredible Power of an Apology

Lorisa Stein - The Icredible Power of AnapologyThe room went silent. Anxiety slowly built. No, more accurately, it mushroomed to fill all the crevices and corners of the small room.
The client carefully announced that one of their goals to achieve in the collaborative approach was to apologize for an action they had taken some time ago. The apology was ready to be presented.

A Practice Worth Mastering

Making an apology is more than stating an interest or acknowledgment of a value held close. The client had long known that this single action had a pervasive impact on the marriage. Fear and shame had led to panic and an inability to come forward with at least an explanation of what occurred and why. Wanting a future relationship with their children was the driving motive to throw aside feelings of disgrace and apologize for past actions.

Sometimes an apology for historical wounds leading to divorce is the key to releasing the couple from negative relationship patterns and moving on to a constructive co-parenting relationship.  Sometimes I feel as though I am looking for a needle in a haystack in the dark, but I know it is here somewhere – that micro-conversation that will release the conflict.  Even though I don’t know what it is beforehand, I know when it has occurred because suddenly the room relaxes, there is more air to breathe, and we are out of the old repetitive discussion and onto something fresh and new.

(Narrative Divorce Coaching by Dr. Stephen Madigan (MFT) and Dr. Susan Gamache (Psych.MFT)
12th Annual IACP Annual Networking and Educational Forum for Collaborative Professionals
29 October 2011, San Francisco, CA))

7 Elements of a Valued Apology

The word apology comes from the Greek language. By the mid 16th century an apology was used to express a defence, justification, or excuse for one’s action. Today, the meaning has evolved to mean

a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another (The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition).

It is often an agonizing decision for a client to consider whether an apology is a right step to take. A right step for them and for those the action affected.  The words, the presentation and a host of other considerations make a good apology a practice worth mastering.

All of the following components will relate a sincere and effective apology to the aggrieved.

  • Admit responsibility for the activities related to the issue at hand. Relevance is just as important and being specific about details of the inappropriate action.
  • Recognize the impact the action had on relationships and ensure that each of these people is receiving the apology. By selecting to speak to only one person, the value of a good apology will be quickly undermined.
  • An apology is more than words being spoken. Ensure that the body language, tone, and choice of words are all sending the same message. Practice with a confidential friend to receive honest feedback.
  • Tacking on the words if, but, or maybe after the apology has the effect of completely denying responsibility. Only the excuse will be remembered.
  • The reason for offering the apology is to express regret, shame or sorrow over the harm and hurt that resulted from the wrongful action taken.
  • If the action was out of character, an isolated incident, a ‘one-off’, say so. If it is behaviour that more than one friend or a family member has remarked upon to you, part of the apology will be stating an intention to change this offending behaviour.
  • Lastly, for some clients, asking for forgiveness will be the closing segment of their apology. For others, it may be an offer to pay restitution or purchase a replacement article if something has been broken or removed.

The Decision’s in Your Hands

It’s a voluntary personal choice to decide whether an apology will bring comfort and heal an old wound.  If the person is not ready, the apology will not ring true.

A client once relayed to me a story about how much pain a transgression to his spouse had caused. He knew his actions were creating a significant rift in their relationship. Long discussions about the value and power of an apology continued over several meetings. There would be scraps of paper with a few phrased written down.  There would be tears and silence. Considering each element and amassing all the scraps of paper an apology was cobbled together. This then was refined and practiced first in front of a mirror and then with a close confidant.

When the next collaborative session was held, the client stood when everyone had assembled in the room.  He looked to his spouse and carefully expressed his apology. The session ended soon after as the wife gratefully accepted his apology.