Friday, January 11, 2013

Fostering Forgiveness through Apologies: the Effective and the Flawed

Soon after midnight on the first day of the year, I started right off by offending someone. There were much better ways of tactfully stating an observation and asking a question, and I BLEW it! I didn't preface what I meant very well to begin with while talking to someone I don't know that well, and what came out of my mouth was so wrong on so many levels. Failing to realize how offensive my comment was to the person, I continued to approach the matter as a misunderstanding that came from my poor prefacing of what I'd meant. That didn't wipe away the offensiveness of my comment for the other party, however. I'd have been better served to just say “I'm so sorry” while bearing the awkwardness created by my stupidity.

I heard from the person later that day, hopefully attesting that I'd been forgiven and that they understood that I meant something very different from what I'd said but failed to say it. (I failed to say a lot, and did my predictable, detatched, “provide a thorough account and everything will become clear to everyone” thing, in perfect INTP pitfall fashion. Not good. Not good.) In so doing, I offered self-justification instead of an apology. I failed to put the offense suffered by the person ahead of all considerations, including my intent to be kind through explanation. I'd actually intended a kind compliment from the beginning with my friend and didn't even approach expressing that, then stated it as what was taken as an insult.

The matter pointed out the importance of apologies and the many ways we can learn to improve our delivery in this aspect of repentance and trust-building, myself first and foremost. David Augsburger, author of many excellent books on forgiveness, boils down elements of an effective apology to this framework, and as an initial apology, sweet little if anything should be added to it (emphasis mine, highlighting my own New Year error):
I deeply regret what I did. I was wrong. I am sorry. I will not act that way in the future. If there’s any explanation to be offered of why I acted the way I did, it can wait for some other conversation. For now I apologize.” 
I sometimes suggest that a person who is giving an account say a simple phrase like “I am deeply sorry for what happened. I am responsible.” 
For me, the important thing is that when I have hurt another person, I want to say some day I will want to talk about all the dynamics and complications and reasons, but just now what is important to me is to tell you I am deeply sorry.”

Defining What We Mean by an Apology 
(This section excerpted from a previous post way back in 2008)

What exactly is an apology? The word originates from the Greek (and the Latin) word “apologia” which literally means a "plea" or “a speech in one’s own defense.” This straight definition more closely resembles the meaning of the word “apologetics” which we use to describe giving an account of one’s faith and the hope within us, with both meekness and patience. It also corresponds with the third possible definition that the Oxford Dictionary lists: “a justification or defense.” But in terms of asking for forgiveness (the process of repentance for causing an offense), what the Oxford describes as a regretful acknowledgment of regret or failure” and how we most commonly use the word, using a defensive approach usually proves to be a poor one.

In terms of asking for forgiveness, using just the Oxford dictionary’s first description alone, an apology includes a few components – something that gives it meaning and substance.
  • Failure
  • Acknowledgment
  • Regret
Both parties must acknowledge that the offending party committed an act that either failed to meet a certain standard or resulted in some undesirable outcome. The person offering a sincere apology must be specific about this action and the outcome, because the rest of the apology builds upon this foundation. That is why general, blanket apologies which do not make clear that the offending party understands what they’ve done lack substance. An apology teaches each party more about their own boundaries and the boundaries of others, hopefully effecting some lasting change for the better of both as a result of the learning process. If there is no identification of the specific failure, can there be any way to avoid repeating it in the future? . . . Efforts of restitution speak powerfully to the offended on behalf of the one who committed the offense, as true regret includes a desire to restore the other party. An effort to make restitution serves to seal an apology and can become a measure of the apology’s essential element of regret.

Pitfalls in Apologies

It's rather simple to read these nice statements about what an apology should be, but we usually take for granted that we are doing the right thing. Under the pressure of the discomfort when making an apology, we can often miss the fact that we're not living up to the ideal. Especially concerning the subject of apology and repentance, we can often learn more from the errors we make than we can from the ideal response.

Augsburger talks about how strong the drive for self-exoneration can be, much like we see in the Path of Bitterness in forgiveness. We tell ourselves that we're being forgiving or that we are repenting, but our nature is such that we end up justifying ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are trying to be understanding, and we merely go around collecting evidence that everything else and anyone else is to blame so that we don't have to feel that interpersonal discomfort. If we didn't have any intent to hurt anyone and actually had good intentions, we can get more quickly caught up in these common pitfalls when attempting to apologize. Admitting our failure which results in hurt and harm threatens us. It reminds us that we are flawed and fallible and cannot undo those mistakes that we'd rather not face, knowing that we are fully responsible for them. It's not a task for the timid or the proud.

Most ineffective apologies also have an element to them that argues against the offense itself and negates the feelings of the offended. It's as if the offending party tries to change the equation in order to “solve for x” with the goal to feel better and to get rid of the interpersonal tension they feel in the equation of balancing the relationship. Obviously, they can shift the blame on to someone or something else to exonerate themselves. If that doesn't work for them, they can also convince themselves (and the offended person) that an offense never occurred to start with, it drops their guilt level. If they can't possibly deny the offense, they can try the next best alternative: tell the offended person that the offense didn't really hurt them that much. They can minimize it. They don't get exoneration, but their efforts at least reduce the pressure that they feel.

Species of Apologies that Aren't
  • Personal Account of Self-Justification. “I really didn't mean to offend you, and here's why. So stop being offended because I didn't intend it.”
    • As Augsburger lays out so well in his writings, it may be important for the parties to discuss the history of what happened to them at some point, but it should not be part of the apology because it minimizes the pain of the offended party.
    • People who use this fall into one of two categories. Some people really just don't want and don't intend to admit to wrongdoing, so they justify themselves instead (without remorse). Some people genuinely feel remorse, and in their desire to express their regret, they feel it necessary to explain their reasoning or the reasons for their deficiency which lead to the offense. Either way and regardless of the motive, when the offended party hears the self-justification, it usually feels to them like minimization and diminution of their pain and loss. The offended person's trust is low, and they can't tell what the motive in the apology really is, especially if the relationship is not well established or is a perfunctory and superficial one. The discomfort of the person offering the apology becomes greater than the discomfort suffered by the person who was offended, when the whole purpose of the apology should be focused on restoring the offended party and making recompense for their loss. Self justification sends a clear message that their pain isn't that important. It argues against the admission of wrongdoing or the harm it caused.
    • In the end, the person who resorts to self-justification doesn't really seem that sorry for what they did. It doesn't serve to heal the damage.
  • All Inclusive Blanket Apology. “I'm sorry for whatever it was that I ever did wrong.”
    • Blanket apologies transmute every action into something offensive and make the specific offense seem vague and nebulous. If the offense is nebulous, then the offender doesn't really have to do anything specific to change their behavior or to make restitution while they hide behind a smoke screen of generalities. When offenders use blanket apologies to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance, it suggests that the offense itself was insignificant. It can imply that lack of motive through ignorance makes the offense unreasonable, so it implies that the offended party is also unreasonable to some degree. In so doing, the offender subtlety suggests that the offended person really caused the problem themselves as opposed to the offensive act itself.
  • The Malicious Blanket Apology: I'm sorry that you were offended. While whispering “ . . .by my actions and my rude remarks to which I believe I'm entitled. I hoped that when I was cruel to you that you wouldn't feel any pain.”
    • This can also be Sorry! as the offender says“...that I got caught” under their breath. This can also be seen in the pre-emptive type of apology wherein a person believes that they can downplay the fallout for their behavior by feigning regret. The classic example of this would be, “Excuse my French, but $@##%^&!” In all of these examples, the person has no regret or remorse for anything they did. They just offer an apology hoping that people will feel obligated to tolerate their sense of entitlement. Some people do offer knee-jerk forgiveness, feeling obligated to accept any apology, no matter how disingenuous. Manipulators use this to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, and they never have to make any true effort towards restoration and recompense. It also suggests that the offended person has been unreasonable and should not feel offended.
  • Appeasement: “I'm pond scum and it's all my fault, and it's sooo terrible! Woe, woe, woe is me! Oh, WOE!”
    • In this type of apology, the offender absorbs too much blame in a maudlin, servile fashion. It also becomes a common way of manipulating the offended party into offering forgiveness by means of the offending party's feigned self-deprecation. It seems oxymoronic in some sense, but it can become a way that the offender uses to shame others by turning themselves into a martyr, and the offended person gets reduced to a mere player or object in the drama of a person who is cast as far more significant than they are.. It also imposes guilt, because it implies that if the offended party really understood how insignificant they really were, they wouldn't have been so unreasonable to get offended in the first place.
  • Abuse of Apology: (The person who is sorry for everything, offering apologies like an easily triggered reflex to avoid conflict or discomfort.)
    • In a sense, this is a lower level of appeasement, and it is used as a type of manipulation to avoid the pain of conflict and disappointment. It's usually related to an external locus of control in some way, the belief that an individual has about their influence regarding things that are actually outside of their control.
  • Vague Acknowledgement of the General Mistake. “We deeply regret that mistakes were made.”
    • Sometimes you may hear government officials make general comments about the nebulous making of “mistakes,” but they use the general and vague statement as a way of diminishing their own culpability. It almost sounds as though they more deeply regret that the outcome was negative more than they do the mistake itself. This type of obfuscation identifies neither the offense nor the offending party, and almost suggests whether anyone did anything wrong.
  • Apology of Subterfuge: (Talk about anything else but the offense in question!)
    • The offender is so uncomfortable with a specific offense that they will offer an apology for some other matter that feels less threatening to them. They get the emotional benefit of having apologized, so their stress level drops and their guilt is appeased. They tell themselves that they did the right thing so that they can feel better. If a manipulator does well, the offended person will feel such cognitive dissonance, they will fall for the demeanor of regret offered to them and will get distracted. They'll get confused enough that they'll forget about what the real issue is, falling for some other red herring decoy.

More Ideas About Improving Apology Skills

I often ask myself if there's any bit of information that can't be found on the internet. Well, I actually found a very good summary online at Wikihow. I'll close with a brief summary, but I'm almost embarrassed to admit that the generic help website offered some great advice. It's worth reading.

Adapted from How to Apologize
(attributed to 98 authors who helped develop the page):
  • Determine what went wrong (to determine further action as appropriate).
  • Take full responsibility (without excuses, and apologize only for yourself).
  • Choose the right time (wait for a cool down, but don't wait too long).
  • Write out your apology (but deliver it in person if possible to show sincerity and effort).
  • Recount what went wrong (but resist self-justification, and avoid using the words “but” and “if”).
  • Express regret using definitive, declarative statements.
    • Good: "I'm sorry I was offensive."
    • Bad: "I'm sorry if I was offensive."
    • Bad: "I'm sorry you were offended."
    • Bad: "I'm sorry for anything that was offensive [to you]."
    • Good example: Boss, I'm sorry I'm late again. I know my shift started 10 minutes ago. I hope this doesn't complicate your day."
    • Good example: "Dear, I'm sorry I forgot your birthday - there's no excuse. I hope you don't feel neglected. Please, let me set this right."
    • Bad example: "I'm sorry I broke your vase, but I was mad and I needed to take my anger out on something."
    • Understand that just saying "please forgive me" does not qualify as a true apology. That's not even admitting you were in the wrong. Many people use the term "please forgive me" as a path to avoid responsibility. Instead, be sincere and show that you are truly sorry of what you did, and you would like to repair your relationship with the person.
  • Make amends.
  • End with gratitude (by expressing their importance).
  • Request forgiveness (by asking for the chance to make up for the wrongdoing – it's their option and should be in the position to choose what will happen).
  • Be patient (resisting temptation to throw in excuse at the end, and remember that full forgiveness takes time and differs from full restoration of the relationship).
  • Stick to your word (and do your part to resolve the conflict).

More to come about one of Gothard's twisted teachings
about his procedure for asking someone for forgiveness.