Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Makes A Good Enough Apology?

March 21, 2005

I read a book called the, "One Minute Apology." It had some nice thoughts about how relationships can be restored by frequent and well meant apologies.

It is true. Not enough people make apologies for the acts of harm they have caused. It is often the missing factor in holding up forgiveness. Too many harmful actions haven’t been acknowledged and the victim is left dissatisfied and unresolved.

Apologies can be cheap. What bothered me about the book was its title. A "one minute apology" may be woefully inadequate for the type of offense caused. It seems cheap and easy.

People think they have apologized with a brief, "I’m sorry!" and expect that it counts. Then they wondered why the matter persists as a deep hurt that won’t go away. The problem was with their apology. It wasn’t long or deep enough. It didn’t address what the victim needed to hear.

I wish the book was called, "The Twenty Minute Apology," to convey what it takes to restore a relationship and open the door to true forgiveness.

I shared this thought with a client. She responded, "I’d settle for a one-minute apology." Her husband, in the middle of his stubborn pride, has consistently refused to acknowledge mistakes. Even a one minute apology would bring a soothing balm to that relationship and help her transcend the misery of real life transgressions.

Earning forgiveness. In her book, "How Can I Forgive You?" psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring outlines what she considers to be six critical tasks for earning forgiveness.

1. Overcome your mistaken assumptions that block your efforts to seek forgiveness.

2. Bear witness to the pain you have caused.

3. Seek to understand your behavior and reveal the painful truths about yourself to the person you have harmed.

4. Apologize genuinely, non-defensively, responsibly.

5. Work to earn back trust.

6. Forgive yourself.

The good enough apology. Apologies that minimize guilt, are defensive or cast blame, inflict more pain. Poor apologies show a lack of understanding, a lack of respect and a vulnerability that the offense could happen again. A good apology is a key to restoring the vital connection for couples - that they can be a safe haven for each other and are free again to be vulnerable and intimate.

Springs also outlines what she considers to be the good enough apology.

1. Take personal responsibility for the harm you have caused.

2. Make your apology personal. Show that the apology is about the other person and not about yourself.

3. Make your apology specific. Describe in detail the offending actions and how it harmed the other party and the relationship. This is where the apology can stretch out.

4. Make you apology deep. Don’t hold back on the wretched truth. Go deep into yourself and explain your motives, lapses in judgment and shortcomings.

5. Make your apology heartfelt. Convey a transformation of the heart through body language, tone of voice, and expressions of genuine remorse. Strip away any pride and defensiveness.

6. Make your apology clean. You can’t accuse someone and apologize at the same time. Don’t try to explain your offense based on the other party’s actions. This is not the time. He or she may or may not acknowledge their role at another time. This is not the time to assign blame. An apology is about feelings, not facts.

7. Apologize repeatedly. For serious emotional wounds, one apology may not be enough. Don’t be sorry. Be sorrowful - and continue to be sorrowful as long as necessary. Don’t be angry or put time limits on another’s grieving.

I am going to take the liberty of adding an eighth item to Spring’s list.

8. Make a specific commitment not to re-offend. The commitment at the end of an apology is an anchor for rebuilding trust in the relationship. Take this seriously. Any misstep or repetition of the offending behavior after a truly meaningful apology could be fatal.

A person making the effort to earn forgiveness has to have: 1) a humble and non-defensive attitude, 2) be honest and reveal truth about oneself or one’s actions however painful or embarrassing it might be, 3) listen to pain and hurt that the offender caused, 4) be patient to allow the hurt party to work through the process and his or her pace, 5) make whatever amends are possible, 6) make a strong commitment not to re-offend, and 7) show constancy of love and concern that becomes habitual and dependable.

When theses steps are skipped or taken lightly, the process of reconciliation is much more difficult for the hurt party.

The miracle of apologies. I have seen the miracle of apologies unlock a frozen heart and heal unbelievable hurt. Many times the offenders are highly motivated but lack understanding of what is required.

Sometimes I coach offenders on how to make a good apology. I model a good apology. I described the elements that they need to cover in the apology. I encourage them to use their own words but to be thorough in their apology.

When I am privileged to witness a heartfelt apology, I feel I am witnessing something sacred. My presence doesn’t matter. Neither does my coaching. What does matter is how deeply the offender feels about his or her transgression and how he or she reaches out to their partner or family member with genuine remorse and contrition.