Apologising as a Path to Forgiveness
© Copyright 2000 by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.
Published in The Spinal Column
Nelson-Marlborough Health Services
Nelson New Zealand, February, 2000
A necessary fact of organisational life is that violations of values will happen. Relationships will then get damaged. That's because work life brings out real disagreements and none of us is perfect in dealing with people when they disagree with us.
For example, if you deny support for someone in the organisation, they may experience that as betrayal, a violation of trust and loyalty. If you don't tell someone the whole story behind a decision, they may experience that as lying, which is a violation of honesty. If you deny needed resources they may feel insulted, a violation of caring and respect. Even not returning a phone call can generate a sense values being violated.
While preventing values violations is a great thing to do, such violations will still occur. Since values violations are an ongoing aspect of working relationships, how do we prevent further damage and heal relationships?
What Not to Do
There are plenty of easy-to-perform destructive ways for dealing with values violations. Avoiding the person we've hurt, blaming them for the conflict, sarcastic joking about the person, and other "Victim Behaviours" will aggravate the situation, harming us, the other person and the organisation.
One of my clients once said to me, "I always practice the golden rule, except when someone pisses me off." After a good laugh, I came back with the obvious when I said, "When you get angry is exactly the time when you most need to practice the golden rule. Treating others well is hardly a challenge when they are treating us well." Of course this is obvious, yet such attitudes commonly emerge when people are under stress.
"How to know when to apologise: Someone believes you have hurt them."
It makes sense that when one side of a relationship is hurting, the other side is hurting also. That's the cyclical nature of conflict. In the VBL system, this cycle is called the "Victim Cycle" because it harms everyone involved, making them victims of the conflict.
Often, when I've urged a manager to apologise to someone in his or her organisation, the response has been: "Excuse me, but I'm the one who was hurt. They need to apologise to me!" Such a response is based on labelling the other person as "wrong" and then avoiding them. When I hear this, I often ask, "Would you be willing to teach them that through your example?" People often recognise their opportunity to make a positive difference.
In this way, it is quite possible to heal the damaged relationship by apologising. This can begin to reverse the Victim Cycle, providing a way to rebuild a relationship damaged by a violation of values. This then allows you to negotiate and design creative, multiple-win solutions, thereby helping to move the organisation forward.
How to Apologise Effectively
This particular version of apologising was inspired by what U.S. President Bill Clinton was unable to do - apologise effectively after he lied to the American people.
How to know when to apologise: Someone believes you have hurt them.
Apologising provides an explicit set of behaviours to seek forgiveness for causing someone pain. And by seeking forgiveness, a process begins for restoring a damaged relationship to health.
Simply saying we are sorry is necessary but not sufficient. To apologise effectively we need to lt the other person know that we recognise the pain we have caused, that in causing their pain we made a mistake, and that we want to earn forgiveness by preventing a repetition of the pain-causing behaviour. By apologising in this way we take a crucial step towards healing and rebuilding a broken relationship. In the box on the prior page you can see the steps to the apologising pattern.
So the next time someone is angry or upset with you, lead the way to forgiveness by being willing to apologise. Then use the VBL apologising steps to plan how to apologise. While each step may not be necessary, several of them will probably help. When you are ready, go apologise. You'll feel better and more complete. The other person may forgive you. They may even follow your example and apologise in return. People will learn to disagree without being disagreeable. The whole organisation will benefit by lightening up and getting a bit healthier.
Before you begin, it is necessary to forgive the other person within yourself to begin this process in earnest. Without doing that, the apologising steps would be an insincere use of a mechanical technique rather than a genuine, heart-felt communication. However, once you have forgiven the person within yourself, then you can follow these steps to the extent they apply to the situation:
Recognize Pain - Express recognition of the pain you may have caused others with full empathy for those hurt.
Review Actions - Describe what you did and how these actions caused others pain.
Express Sorrow - Assuming you feel genuine sorrow, guilt and remorse for what you did and for the pain you caused, express that you are sorry. Then explain why you are sorry.
Accept Penalty - Accept reasonable and appropriate penalties that may be required to achieve restitution and/or fulfill the law. (If this applies to the situation.)
Make Promise - Promise to do your best not to repeat the behavior that caused the pain.
Ask for Forgiveness -
"Will you accept my apology and forgive me?" or
"How can I earn your forgiveness?"
Keep Your Promise - Follow up with actions consistent with your promise.