Aaron Lazare

Graciously accepting an apology

One of my recent posts was about making apologies.  Within days of launching that post, a loved one perpetrated a small wrong against me for which he made amends.  Armed with my instructional blog post, he tendered a brave and heart-felt apology, which I felt woefully unprepared to appropriately acknowledge or accept. While my recent disagreement with T. won’t make or break our friendship, how both of us handled our situation will forever define our future as friends.

In the spirit of catching you up, here’s the situation:  in a casual conversation the other night, T. said something I found hurtful.  He then followed it up with an email fraught with language that stung.  Stunned and baffled, I quickly pointed out how and why his statements hurt me.  To his credit, he swiftly responded with a sincere and specific written apology worthy of the previous blog post.  And, typical of his warm and authentic communication style, he signed off his note with the word “sorry” in the language he grew up speaking at home, letting me know that all was ok with him.

I was truly touched.  I offered the following response to his apology:  “Thank you for the sincere and thoughtful apology.”  And I immediately forgave him in my heart.

While he courageously admitted his own wrongdoing, I wondered: did I do enough in accepting his apology?  

With this fresh question on the top of my mind, I resumed my study of apologies.   I turned again to the fascinating book On Apology, by Aaron Lazare, which starts with the following paragraph:

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

A genuine apology provides so much benefit with so little cost, I’m surprised it isn’t done more often. The decision to apologize is a tug-of-war between pride and guilt. Guilt can be a killer.  So it makes sense to just get on with the apology.  While I previously wrote about how to effectively make an apology, I now share how best to accept one.  Maturely and graciously accepting an apology can help you restore and preserve your most precious personal and professional relationships.

Here are a few tips my research yielded:

  1. If you receive an apology you can choose to accept it, ignore it, or reject it.  If the apology meets the elements I presented in the previous post on apologies, it’s sensible to accept it.  If you find it sincere, demonstrating remorse, and if you feel the relationship is worth maintaining, forgiveness can strengthen your bond.
  2. Forgiveness is usually a strength. However, if the apology is inadequate, and you believe the omissions are deliberate and manipulative, turn down the apology and give the apologizer your reasons.  Then he or she may try again.
  3. Certainly, you should decline an apology that lacks authentic remorse. An off-handed “I'm sorry” is rarely adequate. When you do decline an apology, describe what you see as deficient in the apology and see if the other person responds with a revised apology that does meet your requirements.
  4. When you accept an apology, do so graciously and sincerely without any attempt to insult or humiliate the apologizer. Do not exploit their vulnerability either. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and not as an opportunity to inflict harm.
  5. Don’t blow off an apology by saying “it’s ok.”  If you truly feel wronged, it’s not really ok.  If you’re not ready to accept the apology, or if you need more from the apologizer, it’s your job to ask for it.
  6. Finally, once you’ve accepted someone’s apology, MOVE ON. This will be cathartic for both of you. You will be able to give up some of your resentment and begin healing your wound. He/she will be able to begin letting go of the guilt that he/she feels for hurting you. Trust that the incident will never reoccur. Try to put it out of your mind completely and focus on the positive aspects of your relationship.

Sincerely forgiving someone who’s hurt you can be as difficult as enduring the pain caused by their actions in the first place. Learning how to graciously accept an apology without rolling over for the person apologizing is a valuable life skill. A well-handled apology can be a healing experience, and anyone can learn how to handle apologies with maturity and discretion.

Update:  I’m happy to say that T. and I mended fences and are on our way to many more transgressions for which we’ll both undoubtedly need to say “I’m sorry.”

"Sorry" doesn't cut it

Sometimes we mess up.  Royally.  Unforgettably.  Disastrously.  And sometimes when we mess up, we damage others’ property or even hurt their feelings.  When that happens, it’s time for an apology.  As our big Jewish Day of Atonement looms, it seems an opportune time to discuss what I’ve learned about how to say you’re sorry and do it right. For the Jewish people, this time of year is the season of repentance.  Starting with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and extending through Yom Kippur – the most serious and solemn of all holidays on the Jewish calendar – we Jews fall on our swords and ask forgiveness for our sins of the past year (for those of you familiar with Catholic traditions, it’s kind of like an “instant Lent”). During the past week, I’ve been systematically collecting and cataloging the last year’s mess-ups, preparing to amend my wrongs and ask others for their forgiveness.  Having been on the giving and receiving end of bad apologies, I realize that now is the time to give my apology skills an overhaul.  Now with this post you can benefit from my experience.

Making good apologies isn’t difficult.  The 12th century sage Maimonides said that true repentance requires humility, remorse, forbearance and reparation.

Not much has changed since then.

  1. Own the offense, even if it makes you squirmy:  Not “I’m sorry you misunderstood me,” rather, “I’m sorry I called you a fat bastard.”
  2. Be specific; own the sin:  “I’m sorry I smashed your smartphone with a rock.”  But don’t go overboard: “I’m sorry I destroyed your smartphone, which you so insensitively checked every two minutes, during our romantic dinner.”
  3. Use the first person, and avoid passive voice:  “I apologize for running over your smartphone with my car,” not “I apologize your smartphone was broken.”
  4. Acknowledge the impact:  “I know I was not respecting your time you when I showed up late to dinner. I know you had a busy day, and I’m sorry I made you wait for me to start.” 
  5. Don’t offer too much explanation:  Keep explanations short and relevant, and, above all, don’t use them as justification for your actions. “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes at you during dinner, but you were droning on and on about the same topic for what seemed like hours,” is not an effective apology.
  6. Finally, mean it when you say it. When you apologize, feel sorry in your heart.

When you’ve said your piece, let the other person have their say.  If they need time to process, let them process.  Even if they say nothing but “I accept your apology,” just politely say “thank you.”  If the other person remains angry, you have to sit with that for a while.  And, if they don’t accept your apology the first time out, it’s your responsibility to try at least two more times.  If they still don’t accept, it’s time to assess the overall state of your relationship.

In all, making a good apology means being a little vulnerable.  In his book On Apology, author Aaron Lazare said, “Apologies are one of the most profound interactions that can happen between people.  Apologies can heal humiliation, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, remove the desire for vengeance, and ultimately restore human relationships.”  I totally agree.