Apologizing well is a fundamental part of accountability. It is a skill that we should all understand and practice consistently. You cannot take accountability if you do not know how to apologize well.
This essay primarily focuses on apologizing to people that we care about; people with whom we want to continue to be in relationship; people who are already in our lives and with whom we have loving or caring relationships. There are many different factors in apologizing and everything cannot be covered here. This write-up does not cover how to apologize to people to whom you’ve done severe harm, violence or abuse. Nor does it cover how to apologize to people who have power over you or across significant power differences, for example. Though there are similar threads and principles that run throughout every quality apology, I strongly recommend that people ask for support from their pod people and/or work with an experienced transformative justice practitioner who can help you navigate the specific complexities of the situation, harm, violence, relationship, community, culture for other types of apologies.
Here, we will focus on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm. We begin with these because most of us do not know how to navigate these smaller experiences and our relationships suffer or even end because of it. We stress relationship building in transformative justice work because without strong relationships, we will not be able to respond effectively to harm, violence and abuse within our own communities. If we are not going to rely on police, prisons or the courts, then we are the ones who will have to address things such as domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, murder, stalking, child abuse and child sexual abuse.
If we cannot handle the small things between us, how will we be able to handle the big things? Learning how to address these smaller hurts or breaks in trust, can help us learn the basic skills we need to address larger harms. It can also help to reduce and prevent larger forms of harm and violence (e.g. hurt becoming conflict, conflict becoming harm, harm becoming violence). For example, if you cannot have a direct conversation with your friend about how they hurt your feelings or the toxic language your roommate used, then how will you be able to respond effectively to sexual violence or abuse in your community or family?
This is about how you can apologize better, not how someone else can apologize better to you. While I am sure that we have all received terrible apologies and have people in our lives who need to learn how to apologize better, this is a chance for you to reflect on your own accountability, not someone else’s. As you read this, I encourage you to think about who you need to apologize to, rather than who needs to apologize to you because we all have people we need to apologize and make amends to. We all have work to do and we can all be part of helping to build a culture of accountability in our relationships and communities.
What is written here only begins to scratch the surface of the world of apologizing and the landscape of accountability. There are many things from my How to Give a Genuine Apology training that are not included here such as ‘what not to do,’ practices, ‘things to consider’ and going more in to depth about all that is written here. I also offer examples of apologies, with the main example being an apology that I made. I do this because we cannot ask others to do what we are unwilling to do and we must be willing to practice the things we believe in. These are the basics of integrity.
Learning how to apologize well is part of the on-going work to build the skills we need for transformative justice (TJ).
SETTING THE CONTEXT: ACCOUNTABILITY
Within the world of transformative justice, accountability is the ecosystem in which apologizing lives. Accountability is simultaneously complex and simple, concrete and ever changing.
Accountability is not merely confessing what you’ve done; it is a process that must be practiced. It operates within relationship and though there are key common threads, accountability will look different depending on many variables such as the kind, severity, and length of harm, violence and abuse; the nature of the relationship(s); the quality and consistency of prior accountability work done, if any.
For most of us, we have been taught to fear accountability and struggle to know how to conceive of it outside of punishment or revenge. Accountability does not have to be scary, though it will never be easy or comfortable. And it shouldn’t be comfortable. True accountability, by its very nature, should push us to grow and change, to transform. Transformation is not to be romanticized or taken lightly. Remember, true transformation requires a death and a birth, an ending and a beginning. True accountability requires vulnerability and courage, two qualities that we are not readily encouraged to practice in our society.
Accountability is generative, not punitive. If you want punishment, you should be upfront and transparent about that. Do not ask for accountability, when what you really want is punishment or revenge. Just as it takes work to be accountable, it also takes work to receive someone’s accountability. TJ is a specific kind of approach to harm and it may not be appropriate or possible for every situation, especially if little-to-no preparation work has been done (i.e. pod building, education and study of TJ, practice of TJ values).
We need to move away from “holding people accountable” and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. It is not another person’s job to hold you accountable—that is your job. People can support you to be accountable, but no one but you can do the hard work of taking accountability for yourself. Don’t wait until someone else has to bring up your behavior. Whenever possible, work to proactively take accountability for yourself. Say something the moment you know you’ve made a mistake, caused hurt or harm, or acted out of alignment with your values. Check in with someone about your behavior before they have to say something to you. Communicate well. Build a strong moral compass and get clear about your values.
Accountability should be proactive. We should be forthcoming about our mistakes, rather than hoping no one finds out about what we’ve done. Ideally, we would proactively communicate with others as soon as we know we’ve messed up or haven’t done what we said we would do. This is true whether someone has made us aware of what we’ve done (or not done) or whether we’ve come to the realization on our own. We would care more about doing the right thing, than “getting caught.” We would not put the labor of reaching out and checking in about our accountability on someone else, especially those we’ve harmed. We would proactively do the work to be accountable for ourselves including the work to not run away or hide.
For example, if you didn’t do the task you said you would do because you took on too much, you would communicate about it as soon as you realized you would not be able to get it done. You would apologize and proactively let people know when you would be able to get it done, or take the time to think of suggestions for other ways it could get done. You would acknowledge that you took on too much and promise to work on doing better next time, which may mean that you invest time to work on learning how to say “no,” or your time management, or your need to please others, or your habit of procrastination.
Proactively taking accountability for our actions is an important way we can build trust with the people in our lives. It is a practice that demonstrates our character, integrity, capacity for self-reflection, and the kinds of values that we are committed to. It is a practice of interdependence, a way to care for those we love and our selves, and shows that we have done our own internal work to take responsibility for our actions.
I divide accountability into four main parts:
- Behavior Change
1. Self Reflection runs throughout all accountability work, but I place it at the beginning because you must have enough initial self-reflection to know that you have done something hurtful or harmful and, most importantly, want to make amends or address it genuinely. You will need to—and should—continue to self reflect throughout the different stages of your accountability, but you must begin in a place where you can understand your actions and the impact they had, so that you can get to a place where you are willing to make things right (or vice versa). True accountability must be consensual. Accountability requires change and you cannot change other people, only yourself. In short, you cannot force someone to be accountable.
2. Apologizing is a chance to acknowledge and take responsibility for the hurt or harm you caused or were complicit in. It is a moment to demonstrate to those you have harmed that you understand what you did and what the impact was. You may need to apologize more than once or many times, depending on the severity of the harm, how deep the hurt went, how badly trust was broken or if the hurt became a pattern.
Apologizing is a fundamental part of the rebuilding of trust and because of this, it is a key place for you to practice vulnerability. Remember, the only way to build trust is through vulnerability. Trust is key in our work to end cycles of violence because when violence or harm happens, trust is one of the first things that gets broken. Because of this, apologizing and repair are often interdependent on each other.
3. Repair is a uniquely challenging part of accountability because it must be done in relationship and cannot be done alone, unlike changing one’s behavior. Of course, you must do your own work on your own time in order to engage genuinely and effectively in the work of repair with those whom you have hurt or harmed (e.g. being willing to be uncomfortable and not confusing being uncomfortable with being unsafe).
Repair includes making amends and rebuilding trust, so that you can assure others that you will not commit the hurt or harm again. It is an opportunity to do the work to be in right relationship with those you have hurt or harmed, and just as important, to also be in right relationship with yourself. Repair can take a long time and usually demands consistency and a level of faith in the face of fear that we are often not taught. It takes a lot of work to rebuild trust and to mend a broken relationship, especially when compounded by past trauma (for everyone involved).
You will most likely have to apologize more than once while you are practicing repair and the process of repair can also help to reveal more harm that was caused or a clearer picture of the depth of the impact of your actions (or inaction). Repair is not linear and does not follow a set path. It depends greatly on many factors such as: the quality of the relationship with the person you harmed prior to and after the harm, your previous track record of apologizing and accountability with that person, your consistency and commitment to repair, and timing.
4. Behavior Change is one of the hardest parts of accountability. Changing your behavior is not easy. We have all tried and failed to change our behaviors at one point or another in our lives (e.g. self care, procrastination, new year’s resolutions). Often, even seemingly benign behaviors have deeper roots in trauma that will require some level of healing. For example, if you are struggling to practice self-care, you will inevitably have to confront why you consistently put yourself last. Our hurtful or harmful behaviors are also often part of patterns that we must break and require larger shifts in our lives than “just this one thing,” which is why they tend to be so hard to change. In the example of self-care, you may need to let go of some things or say “no” to something or someone; you may need to assess how you spend your time and why you make space for things that are not what you ultimately want to prioritize. Transforming your behavior is hard work and is easier done with support. Find people in your life with whom you can talk about your accountability, mistakes, things you’re ashamed of or feel guilty about, things you need to apologize for, or times when you weren’t your best self.
Everyone needs to build support for their accountability. Do not wait until you are being called to accountability to begin building your accountability support system, put the time in now so that you don’t have to scramble. If you are not actively building and maintaining accountable relationships, you are proactively building an unaccountable life.
It is important to note that there are times when some of these parts of accountability may not be possible. For example, sometimes repair is not possible. This may be because of various reasons such as the person harmed does not want to engage with the harmer, the person who harmed does not know how to take accountability or death.
Additionally, it is important to practice all four parts of accountability. For example, if you have apologized and repaired again and again, but continue to enact the harm, people will stop believing your apologies and repair. They may begin to distrust anything you say or the wear and tear of getting their hopes up only to have them dashed again and again could leave life-long scars. On the other hand, if you only change your behavior and do not apologize or make amends to those you have harmed, you miss an opportunity for your own growth, you dispose of relationships and people you care about, act out of alignment of your values, or squander the chance to take accountability and aid in someone’s healing. (Note: Though accountability can aid in healing, your healing should never be solely dependent on someone else’s accountability because they may never take accountability.)
We are aiming for practice, not perfection. We will hurt, misunderstand, and harm each other. We are human and we live in an incredibly violent and harmful world. The point is to learn how to be accountable when we inevitably mess up, so that we know what to do. This is not to let anyone off the hook or excuse or justify harm. Instead, this is a push for us to acknowledge the reality of harm, rather than continue to live in the fantasies we’ve created about harm. We will all mess up and make terrible mistakes. We will all hurt people we love and care about at some point. We will all have our time on the chopping block. We want to try and reduce harm whenever we can and that is different than trying to avoid conflict or pretend away hurt.
The only way to get skilled at accountability is to practice it and the only time we can truly practice accountability is when we have messed up or caused harm.
APOLOGY: THE WHAT
In my time doing transformative justice work, I have found that these are the components of a good apology. Depending on the relationship and your track record of accountability with the person or people you are apologizing to, you may not need to do all of these steps every single time. However, I would encourage you not to skimp, especially if you haven’t done the work to build up a strong track record or culture of accountability, reliability or trust in your relationships.
The goal of these steps is not to be over-accountable, but to be thorough and to tend to those who were harmed, hurt or impacted by your actions. Again, here we are focusing on people you love or care about and with whom you want to be in relationship. We are focusing on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm.
1. “I’M SORRY.” It may seem silly to begin with this, but I cannot tell you how many apologies I have heard that do not include “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” It is important to apologize in your apology.
2. NAME THE HURT/HARM. This is an opportunity to name what you did and demonstrate that you understand what happened. If your behavior was racist, say it was racist instead of “confused” or “hurtful.” If you made an assumption, own that you made an assumption. If you bullied or gossiped about someone, name it. Every single one of us knows what it is like to have someone skip this part of their apology or skirt around actually naming their behavior. This step in particular can go a long way to help build back trust and is a moment to practice humility and clarity.
3. NAME THE IMPACT. A quality apology acknowledges the impact, no matter your intention. It is not to say that intentions don’t matter at all—the difference between someone purposefully setting out to harm you vs. someone who harmed you unintentionally is important. However, this is not the place to explain or wallow in your intent. This is a time to tend to the impact your actions (or inactions) had on someone else. This is a chance to practice care, empathy, and compassion. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you.” “I would be very hurt and angry too.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me again.”
4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY BY NAMING YOUR ACTIONS. This step is probably the most important part of an apology. You need to name your actions and what you did. This is a chance to put yourself in the apology and the hurt/harm. This is a chance to truly take responsibility. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you because you told me that you don’t like to be teased about that and I teased you about it anyway.” “I would be very hurt and angry too. I promised you I would be there and then I didn’t show up and I didn’t call.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me with something confidential again because I shared something that you had confided in me and I explicitly swore to not tell anyone.” “I made a mistake.” “It was my fault.” “I did/I do ______.” “I didn’t/I don’t _____.”
This is a place to practice true remorse, show vulnerability and to again, focus on the impact, instead of the intent. This is a great opportunity to practice integrity.
5. COMMIT TO NOT DOING THE HURT/HARM AGAIN. The final step of an apology is to commit to not doing the hurt/harm again. This step is key because it doesn’t matter how great your apology was if you continue the hurt or harm. “I promise not to tease you about that ever again.” “I don’t want to be the kind of person you can’t trust because I care about you and I will work to earn back your trust, knowing that will take time.” “I will do my chores from now on.” “I will ask you what you need next time instead of making assumptions.”
The hardest part of this step is that you actually have to do the thing you say you will. This is where our own daily work to be accountable to ourselves and others plays a key role. Hopefully you are building the skills to change your behaviors already, so that you can make good on your commitment.
APOLOGIZING: THE HOW
Here are some things that I have found extremely helpful when it comes to apologizing. All of them require different skill sets that we can practice in our day-to-day lives.
– Address it as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things I have learned, especially for low-level harm and/or hurt. The sooner you can address it, the better. This is also why we practice, so that we can shorten our response time. Like firefighters who practice being able to get to a fire as quickly as possible, knowing that a quick response will lessen the damage, we can practice getting better and more comfortable with apologizing and taking accountability, so that we don’t run, freeze or hide from it.
When we put off apologizing, we run the risk of several things happening:
- The hurt/harm and impact worsens and thus will be harder to repair (e.g. hurt grows into resentment, resentment into bitterness, bitterness into contempt);
- The person begins to create their own story (e.g. “they don’t care about me because if they did, they would apologize” or worse, “maybe it was my fault”);
- We begin to create our own convenient story (e.g. “well, it’s been so long now, I can’t apologize,” “it will just make things awkward, “it wasn’t really that bad”);
- They move on and your window to apologize or stay in relationship closes.
There have been times when I have pulled over to the side of the road to apologize. I want people to know that they are a priority in my life. I have found that addressing things as soon as possible can also work to deescalate a situation, especially because we expect people to hide and avoid taking responsibility when they know they have done something wrong. Addressing it right away, openly and earnestly can go a long way because the longer you wait, the bigger and more overwhelming it will seem. We want to practice enough so that we can face what we’ve done head-on immediately and with intention, instead of running away and hoping it will blow over.
This is not to say that there aren’t times when you may need to take some time to respond. Preparation is important, but all too often people use preparation as an excuse and a shield. Like a fire drill, practice your preparation now. Practice with small apologies and practice the many mini skill sets needed: desiring the discomfort of growth, accountable sharing and active listening, humility, building relationships in your everyday life where you can have nuanced conversations about accountability and that can support you in your accountability.
There is a window of apology. It is the amount of time that the person who was hurt or harmed is open to receiving an apology and/or staying in real relationship. There is no set amount of time for this window and it varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. It is also impacted by factors such as timing, healing or life circumstances. However, the more that window closes, the harder it is to apologize and stay in any kind of meaningful relationship. Once the window completely closes, it can often mean that though they may be open to receiving your apology, they have no desire to have you in their life. There are, of course, apologies that come many years or decades later, but the cost is the relationship and not having that person in your life.
– Be genuine. Philly Stands Up talks about the concept of “the spirit of accountability.” They say that someone can write a letter of accountability and say all the right things, but if it doesn’t have the spirit of accountability, it will fall flat. The same is true for apologizing. Your apology should have the spirit of accountability in it. Most of us can sniff out a disingenuous apology and it feels terrible to receive. If you are not genuine in your apology, you can cause more hurt/harm. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you don’t want to apologize, don’t apologize. This is a great chance to practice self-assessment. Apologizing is something that many of us feel forced to do and therefore, we often receive apologies that consist of someone carelessly going through the motions. Again, if your apology is not genuine, it can cause more hurt/harm. Your apology and accountability should come from you, no one else. You must take responsibility for your apology.
– Give your full attention. When you are apologizing to someone you care about, give them your full attention. This is not a time to rush, this is a time to go slow. This is a time to be thorough, not distracted. This is a moment to figure out what you and the other person need in order to be present. Put away your phone and agree to meet at a place and time where you can communicate well.
– Treat it as sacred. Apologizing is part of accountability and accountability is a sacred practice of love. If you’ve hurt someone you care about, it is sacred work to tend to that hurt. You are caring for this person, the relationship you share, as well as your self. You are engaging in the sacred work of accountability, healing, and being in right relationship. This work is part of the broader legacy of transformative justice, love, and interdependence. Do not take it lightly and give it the respect it deserves.
Give yourself the time to get into the right head, heart, spirit, and soul space. Get clear on why you want to apologize and what values you want to ground in. Bring a meaningful object to hold or wear, if you need. Honor the process.
– Be proactive. Whenever possible, work to be proactive in your apology. You do not have to wait for someone to tell you to apologize. You can apologize on your own. You can build a strong moral compass and solid values so that you know when you’ve done something that you regret or that is not in alignment with how you want to treat people. These can be powerful moments for others to witness, as they help to shift the punitive mentality by literally demonstrating the opposite. These can also be some of the most tender moments. For example, apologizing to someone who is used to being treated poorly in a relationship and who would never have told you to apologize.
– Build a culture of accountability. Every time you are apologizing, use it as an opportunity to build a culture of accountability in your relationship whether with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, dates or partners. Use it as an opportunity to build accountability as the norm in your relationships. Start small and build from there. Do not start with the hardest apology you need to give. Start small.
Even if your apology is about something small, understand that it is connected to a broader collective cultural shift we are trying to create, one where we all proactively apologize and take accountability for our behavior, big or small.
– Let go of outcome and control. This is one of the hardest things to do. Apologizing is a chance to practice risk, embracing the unknown, and faith. Apologizing to someone so that they will apologize to you is not apologizing—it is manipulation. Do what you need to do to get to the place where you can apologize without expecting anything in return. You cannot control anyone else, only yourself. Your apology may not be received well or the person may not want to be in relationship with you anymore. Choose growth and being uncomfortable over your fear. This is an opportunity to practice when the stakes are low (e.g. apologizing for hurt, misunderstanding, conflict), so that we can build our skills to be able to do it when the stakes are much higher (e.g. apologizing for harm, violence, abuse). This is an excellent place to practice courage because we can only truly practice courage when we are afraid.
– Practice, practice, practice. There is no way to get better at apologizing if you don’t practice apologizing. You have to put in the work; you have to put in the hours. Each apology is different and will give you the chance to practice different things. You will learn how to navigate apologizing well in one relationship in your life, which may be completely different than another relationship. Start with low-level things and build your skills up to high level things. Identify all the many qualities and skills sets you need to develop in your self: active listening; accountable sharing; self awareness and self reflection; asking for help, especially with more challenging apologies; rebuilding trust; making amends; healing your own trauma; learning how to not spiral into a puddle of shame when you make even the smallest of mistakes; knowing what your values are and how you practice them every day, week, and month.