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How To Give A Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

This write-up is in two parts:

How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

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. 

 

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

 

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.

 

[How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability]

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Dreaming Accountability

 

photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.

[photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.]

What if accountability wasn’t scary? Take a breath and let that sink in for a second.

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis.

 

Accountability is not a destination, it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.

 

We can start with our self-accountability and the ways that we don’t show up for ourselves. We can acknowledge how most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves. We blow past our own boundaries, we punish and beat ourselves up in terrible ways. We can start with the ways we treat and talk to ourselves—ways that we would clearly recognize as abuse if it were being done to another person. After all, our abusive relationship with ourselves lays the groundwork for an abusive world.

 

What if we embraced accountability as a reflection of our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity? As a magnificent example of what it means to be human and flawed and in relationship with one another? What if we welcomed the quickening of our pulse and the beating of our heart as signals of being alive and caring and what is most important to us: our relationships with each other? What if we listened to that fear—the fear of losing someone important to us or of losing ourselves?

 

What if we rushed towards our own accountability and understood it as a gift we can give to ourselves and those hurting from our harm? What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?

 

What if we understood the harms we’ve caused and have been part of allowing, not as things that don’t need to be tended to or things that will blow over or be forgotten about in time? But instead as one small part of a collective gaping wound that we have been taught to pretend away that sits in the middle of our hearts, our relationships, our families, our movements, our country, our world? What if we all understood our parts—individually and collectively—in that collective gaping wound?

 

What if we could understand that in a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done?

 

What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation? What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power? What if we understand that no amount of “tough love” or punishment could ever hold a candle to the long and hard labor, fear, and pain of facing our demons and our traumas? What if we learned to desire the challenging and the transformative, instead of the easy and the comfortable? After all, comfort and transformation do not live on the same block.

 

What if we stopped romanticizing transformation and genuinely understood that true transformation requires a death and birth, a letting go and a starting anew?

 

What if we spent more time practicing accountability, not just talking about it? So often, we want other people to be accountable, but what if we practiced our own accountability more? What if we started with the small things and built up our skills for the big things? What if we remembered that addressing the small things between us helps to prevent the big things?

 

What if we talked with each other about the things we’re trying to be more accountable for? What if we built relationships where we could have nuanced conversations about accountability, shame, fear, guilt, embarrassment, insecurity, trauma, and healing?

 

What if we took more time to dream accountability? What it could be and the kind of magic it could grow? What we need in order to practice it more and better, both individually and collectively? What if accountability was so normalized, so everyday, so run-of-the-mill, that it was second nature? That it was our default? That it was something that everyone knew about and you could easily pass a group of children and youth of any age casually talking about it?

 

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?

 

What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love?

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Still Choosing to Leap: Building Alternatives

Remarks from the closing plenary, “Revolutionary Organizing Across Time and Space,” at the INCITE! Color of Violence 4 Conference, March 26-29, 2015, Chicago, Illinois.

 

vie on wallI am engaged in the work of building transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (The BATJC). We are a local collective and we are not a nonprofit because we believe that it will not allow us to take the kinds of political risks necessary for transformative justice and community accountability (TJ/CA). No one is paid and we work to get everything for as free as we can. We are not “volunteers,” but rather we understand this as part of our life’s work.

I am interested in our internal work. The work with each other inside of our movements, inside of our organizations and groups, inside of our relationships. The way that our analysis by itself is not enough, because what good is it if we can run great campaigns if we all end up hating each other in the process? If it means that leaders who used to be friends now don’t work together to the detriment of our movements? What good is our amazing analysis of TJ/CA if our intervention to violence tears apart our community, and then we need an accountability process for our accountability process?

Because it is easy to hate a white police officer, but what do we do when the violence and abuse is coming from people who look like us? People we rely on? People we love? What do we do when the violence is happening inside of our homes, our relationships, our communities? Inside of our political groups, collectives, organizations and movements?

Our inability to respond well to intimate violence and abuse continues to undermine our other political work. How is it that we still can’t respond well to one of the most common experiences on the planet that our peoples face?

This is the moment we are in.

Because it is clear to me that we don’t lack political analysis or people power or deeply compelling work. But I am interested in what happens next: the way we come together and then break apart. The way we can mobilize people against the state, but when it comes to intimate violence within our own communities, we can’t ever seem to find enough people; or they are there in the beginning, but are nowhere to be found in the following months; or we end up replicating our own versions of criminalization, exile and “other.” It is not enough to say, “community-based responses to violence” if we simply just end up replicating the state.

I am interested in what we are going to do when we have a world without prisons—that’s right, I said, “WHEN.” Because it is going to happen: we will win. I have no doubt in our ability to shut down the prison industrial complex forever and throw away the keys. It is going to happen.

But then what? What will be our alternatives for dealing with violence, harm and abuse?

We need to build alternatives. Yes, we need resistance—it is crucial. Our communities are being attacked and erased at every turn. Yes, we need to resist against the systems that are targeting us—most definitely. AND (BOTH/AND) we also need alternatives. Because even if we abolish prisons tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with conflict and harm and violence. Even if violence and abuse ended tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with the impacts of trauma (individual and collective trauma, immediate and generational trauma). Generational trauma will be with us for some time.

And of course these are not mutually exclusive to each other. We can resist in ways that build a new world. And I am not saying we need to do everything all at once all the time. On the contrary, I am saying the exact opposite. That instead, we get clear about our different roles and work in service of a shared vision, and that we are strategic about those roles. That those of us who are working to resist and hold back the tide for one more day, one more night, do so for those of us who are working to build alternatives. And that those of us who are working to build alternatives stay grounded in the current urgency and reality of intimate and state violence. That we work in concert with each other so that we are not responding to immediate needs in ways that undermine our long term visions (and in ways that perpetuate the very systems we are fighting); AND that we are also not building utopic politically pure castles in the sky that have no relevance to our current conditions. We need both and we need them together and we need them to be in service of one another.

Because we are good at resisting. We are good at fighting for the world we don’t want. We are good at analysis and analyzing things up and down (and sometimes into oblivion). We are skilled at naming what we don’t want. I think we are less skilled at naming what we do want; our visions for liberation. And not just vague things like, “ending white supremacy and heterosexism,” but how are all the children going to get fed? Who will clean the toilets? Who will take out the trash? Who will cook the food?

We know that most people who experience violence—any type of violence—turn to their intimate networks first: their best friend, their family, their partners, a neighbor. Most people don’t call the cops or an anonymous hotline or even seek social services. They turn to their intimate networks. So if we know this, then that is where we need to build.

I hope we are in a moment where we are realizing that we need to put half if not more of our time and resources into building alternatives and building in our intimate networks. BOTH a reclaiming of what has been stolen from us, as well as a reimagining of what can be. As well as a revealing of what we are already doing and the strategies of resilience that are already embedded in our lives. For example, I think about queer chosen family. No one took a class or got a grant to learn how to do that. We did it to save our lives and in the process, created a new world for each other.

We are at a moment where we have almost two decades of shared language and thinking around TJ/CA—obviously the work has been going on forever, just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it—but in terms of a shared language and political framework, we have had tremendous contributions from so many great people and groups. We are in a moment where TJ/CA is gaining more and more visibility and where we are able to share examples of our responses to violence like never before. I feel incredibly lucky to be alive in this moment doing TJ/CA work and I extend daily gratitude to the folks who have come before me in this work as well as the brave and dear revolutionaries who I have the honor of working with.

We are in a moment where we are building off of this work knowing that practice yields the sharpest analysis.

How are we building the world we long for in our day-to-day? After the protests, after the conference, after the event, outside of the meetings? During the unsexy times, in our most mundane moments?

This is not about perfection, but practice. Falling down and getting back up. Spectacular failures and learning how we can be and do better. Resilience in the face of fear; Humility in the face of ego; Faith in the face of hopelessness. This is about understanding organizing as a spiritual practice that is just as much about our souls as it is about our goals.

Sometimes I think it is strange to speak about this work from a microphone because so much of the work I am engaged in is quiet work, tender work. It is witnessing people in their most vulnerable moments around their histories of child sexual abuse, the times when they don’t want to be seen. This work is about nuance, complexity and contradiction, not sound bytes and drawing lines in the sand. It is messy and sticky work that reminds me every day that notions of “good” and “bad” people are fantasies that simply serve to make us feel more comfortable, but ultimately don’t serve to make us more liberated. I don’t believe in “good” and “bad” people, I believe that given the right conditions, any of us can be an asshole; any of us can abuse power.

How do we leave a legacy worth fighting for? How do we learn to invest in each other as our greatest resource? Because we will need each other to build the kind of world we want; liberation is a collective practice. How can we cultivate a sense of shared commitment to each other and understand this as part of our organizing? How do we cultivate the kind of commitment to each other that can withstand failures, heartbreak, disappointment, gossip, mistakes and conflict?

The kind of commitment to each other and love for one another that allows us to continue to leap together, knowing that we will fall and mess up and make mistakes and get bruised. Knowing that we will have to brush ourselves off and climb back up the mountain to do it all over again tomorrow. How do we cultivate that kind of commitment? One where we still choose to leap. Together.

Thank you.

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