The lack of an apology broke apart Everly Brothers. It was one of the longest lasting and best known public feuds. Their rift began publicly when Don showed up drunk to a concert in 1973 and botched the words to one of their best known songs. But the bad blood between the brothers went back even further, lasting decades, and only ended with the death of Phil Everly in 2014.
Seriously, how hard is it to own up to making a mistake? Apparently, very hard for some people.
To some people, an apology is a sign of weakness. To some people, appearing vulnerable would be more painful than putting a hot iron on their faces. To some people, being right is worth fighting for until they finally reach the grave for good.
In our fractious world, we are forever seeing a well known figure issuing a blanket public apology for a personal misdeed. Often, the apology is accompanied by a statement intended to mitigate the issuer's responsibility. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the case even on the personal level. No one really seems to want to accept responsibility for his or her own actions any more.
At the time that I originally wrote this entry, it was in response to an incident that occurred at an on line message board. I was fairly new to the world of on line websites and was rather shocked at what happened to me. A poster on a message board made vicious personal attack on me and another poster. She got caught and called out for it by others at the site. Shortly thereafter, this person chose that same public forum to issue a generic apology to both us. But the damage had already been done. The public airing of the apology struck me as hollow and insincere, especially when that same forum had a personal message system that would have allowed her to apologize to each of us directly first. That experience got me to thinking about what constitutes an honest apology.
Of course, the degree of the transgression usually dictates the degree of the apology. For example, if one accidentally steps on another person's toe or bumps into an individual in public, a simple "I'm sorry" usually suffices. If the transgression is more severe such as spilling a cup of coffee or a glass of wine on another person, the verbal apology should be accompanied by a follow up action to rectify the resulting damage.
So what should happen when someone purposefully says hurtful things to or about another? Is saying "I'm sorry" enough? Or is it only one of many actions needed for a sincere apology? Those were the questions I asked myself in writing this.
Saying "I'm sorry" is just one step in an apology, but it is not the first step in an honest apology. Accepting full responsibility within one's own mind for the transgression is imperative as the first step towards a sincere apology. This is often the hardest step. That means confessing to yourself that you were wrong without justifying your actions to yourself.
Below is a personal story to demonstrate that. The apology actually occurred nearly two years after I wrote the original blog on apology, but it was a case of an apology done right and one that mended a very broken relationship.
When I was a senior in high school, a boy whom I had been dating asked me to go to the prom with him. Then one week before the prom, he got cold feet and broke the date, saying he did not want to go. I was hurt, humiliated, and angry. And we literally never spoke again after that until...fast forward forty years. And at our 40th reunion, he approached me and asked if we could talk. He then made a very honest and heartfelt apology for hurting me and said he had felt guilty about it for all those years since. He did not ask forgiveness. I accepted his apology, but I was not ready to give him forgiveness at that moment. I had to process it all first.
This article from Oprah's website is excellent in how an effective apology is constructed. I have blockquoted the part on forgiveness, because this is very important point that many who are apologizing do not understand.
An effective apology is, as Lazare puts it, "an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage." But there's no guarantee that the other person involved will share your warm fuzzies. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.
Even though the apology to me was delayed by decades, the recipient of it (me) still appreciated getting it. It took me a while to actually process it before I could say that I forgave him. And I did forgive him later. But here is an important point that I can make based upon my own experience of getting a long delayed apology. When an apology is honest and heartfelt, then it is never too late to offer one.
So like my former boyfriend, a person must take that first step and admit to him or herself (without excuses or justification) that he or she was wrong. Only then, can someone begin on the road to an honest apology. In order to be truly sincere, the verbal or written apology should be made directly to the injured party, and must be devoid of trying to mitigate or justify one's transgression. Without this step, a public apology appears to be just a empty show or a washing of one's hands.
As part of the apology, some people think that forgiveness may be requested, but I personally believe that it shifts the burden back upon the injured party and therefore should not be a part of the apology. Sometimes, the injured party may not be ready to completely accept the apology right away and that is okay. My own first reaction was not completely on board. It took me a while to overcome my own defensiveness before I could bring myself to forgive my former boyfriend. For some people, it might take longer. Regardless of the reaction of the recipient to the apology, a sincere apology may require additional actions that demonstrate the sincerity of it and ensure that the same transgression is not repeated in the future.
Psychology Today had a very good article on the art of an apology. This excerpt stood out for me.
An apology should be a completely one-sided communication, an acknowledgement of guilt and regret on your side, asking nothing in return. You don't have to grovel. Just give your apology and accept that it may take time to repair the damage. If we've done or said something especially hurtful, we may have seriously scarred the relationship. I recall one friendship that I permanently damaged by telling the truth in a deliberately hurtful way (although I didn't recognize it at the time) and then offering an apology that included the word "if."
Tolerating real, possibly lasting guilt and regret are part of tendering a true apology.
The entire idea of an apology is for the offender to embrace his or her transgression, let the injured party know that they are truly sorry for the transgression, and avoid putting any additional burden upon the injured party.
It is a hard lesson to learn, not just about making an apology, but also about accepting one.