This write-up is in two parts:
Please read Part 1 before you proceed.
This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019.
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 within themselves 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.