In his article “Making Peace Through Apology”*, Aaron Lazare talks about the components that make an apology work. Using the example of the US leadership response to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison as an example of how not to issue an apology, he goes on to explain what makes an apology work. He cites four parts to the structure of an effective apology.
The first component is the acknowledgment of the offense. “A valid acknowledgment must make clear who the offender is… and who is the offended. The offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offense.” Lazare says that people fail when they give incomplete apologies (“for whatever I did”), use the passive voice (“mistakes were made”), make the apology conditional, as in expecting a reciprocal apology, or question whether the victim was damaged or minimize the offence. Using the word “sorry’ is ineffective without acknowledging responsibility.
The second part of an apology, Lazare says, is the explanation. “An effective explanation may mitigate an offense by showing it was neither intentional nor personal and is unlikely to occur again.” Making shallow statements like “The devil made me do it” or “I wasn’t thinking” may cause the apology to backfire. It is best to admit that there was no excuse for the offense than trying to minimize it.
The third phase of an apology is an expression of remorse, shame, and humility. “These attitudes and emotions show that the offender recognizes the suffering of the offended.” It can also help the offended person feel secure that the offense will not happen again.
Finally, an apology needs reparation to compensate in a real or symbolic way, for the offender’s transgression. If the offense involved damge or loss of property, repair or replacement is the usual form of reparation. When the offense is intangible such as an insult, humiliation, or disregard, Lazare suggest a gift, an honor, a financial exchange, and/or a commitment to change one’s way.
My experience with apologies is that sometimes are made with sincerity but then the offender fails to change his or her behavior. When that is the case, and a person truly seeks forgiveness, I believe change in behavior probably has to precede the apology. In other words, trust needs to be reestablished if the offended person is to believe the words spoken.
An effective apology can heal in many ways, Lazare goes on to explain. It can restore the dignity of the person offended. It can affirm that both parties have shared values and agree that the harm committed was wrong. It validates that the victim was not responsible for the offense. This is especially necessary in rape and child abuse cases. Another healing factor is the assurance that the person offended is safe from being harmed again. Reparative justice can be part of the healing process when the offender suffers some type punishment. Finally, Lazare suggests a dialogue that allows the offended party to express his or her feelings toward the offender.
When I read the article, many situations in the news, in politics in particular, came to mind. My observation is that when apologies are made they seem to be self-serving and shallow. I think it is no wonder that we never seem to move on and the same old things seem to happen over and over again.