NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Apology” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome
“Apology,” Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
Apology: Mending the Rift
Prior to undertaking therapist training, I took a short course in community mediation. Most of my mediation experience was as a volunteer in small claims court. We mediators helped conflicting parties try to reach a mutually satisfying agreement rather than simply letting a judge adjudicate the case.
Small claims court is all about settling financial arguments, and money was always the identified issue in the cases we handled. But in mediation, a strange thing happened: almost always, it turned out that what the aggrieved party most needed was a heartfelt apology and a way to remedy their grievance. When the apology came – and it did, often – the agreement quickly followed. The change in demeanor from start to finish could be dramatic: I remember one case where two women, a homeowner and a landscaping contractor, began in bitter conflict but walked out with their arms around each other, sharing tears.
Something similar happens in couples counseling. Couples often come to therapy as a last resort, with histories of conflict that make reconciliation seem impossible even to me. But when both sides put all their cards on the table in a clear, non-blaming way, so they can finally understand the effect they have had on each other, apologies almost always come, and with them, a positive shift in the relationship. The pattern of mutual understanding leading to apology and reconciliation also occurs with addict clients and their families. I see this pattern play out in family therapy, too. In both instances, the “identified problem” client, once fully understood by his or her family, typically leaves therapy having both rendered and received an apology, and with it a new family dynamic begins.
The first step to reconciliation is almost always an apology for the suffering we have caused, even if unintentionally. The next is to agree to make amends for any harm done, whenever doing so creates no further harm. This sequence is well established in twelve-step recovery programs. It seems less well understood, however, by the rest of us. In Western culture, we seem to fear apology. Apologizing seems shameful, excessively humbling, or an admission of wrongdoing, so we avoid it. Instead, what most of us do, when someone has charged us with wronging, is one or more of the following:
- Deny it. (“I didn’t do that!”)
- Make a counter accusation. (“You do that too!”)
- Provide an explanation. (“I did that because…” or worse, “I did that because you did…”)
These strategies usually escalate conflict rather than resolving it. When we believe someone has done us wrong, we are not customers for denial, counter-accusations, or even explanations. We want our injured feelings and our view of events understood and validated, and we want the person we believe has harmed us to express sorrow for our suffering. Once that occurs and an apology is offered and accepted, healing the rift can begin.
Apology is a turning point in conflict resolution and also a prime example of “better late than never.” Apologies can come at any time, even decades later, and still have their healing effect. Two personal examples: Had the Albany surgeon and gastroenterologist who nearly killed me apologized for their errors in judgement, I would have worked with them to rectify the harm done rather than suing them for damages. When, at age 70, my mother apologized for mistakes she had made with me as child, my heart opened, and it has remained open; where previously, for some 25 years, most of our interactions were either guarded or hostile, now we freely express our mutual love.
Apologizing well, like any other skill, requires practice and attention, but it is worth getting it right. The key to apology is that we need to practice it not only when we have knowingly done harm, but also when the suffering is due to inadvertent actions, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation – whenever our actions have resulted in suffering. To apologize for suffering is not to admit wrongdoing, but instead to declare that whatever the cause, we want to rectify the harm done and mend the rift that has occurred. By apologizing, we stop the cycle of attack and counterattack, and open the path to forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust.