By Ramon Presson
In the past year, the phenomenon of victims finding their voice has released an avalanche of accusations that have been met with either denial or apology, and sometimes an odd mixture of both.
We are witnessing an ever-growing roster of public figures including entertainers, athletes, politicians, business leaders, education leaders, and religious leaders pressed to make public apologies for bad behavior, hurtful actions, and offensive comments.
Wrote Alison Klein in the Washington Post, “The near-daily tide of sexual misconduct allegations against famous men has spawned a head-turning stream of apologies, acknowledgments that experts say have been generally self-serving and aimed at the public more than the victims.”
The apologies often seem forced and obligatory, minimizing and offering excuses for the behavior and/or casting doubt on the character and motive of the accusers, Klein wrote.
And it’s not just powerful men being forced to apologize for their behavior. Recently female comics Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee each made statements that triggered an immediate and fierce backlash of criticism. Both women were forced to respond quickly with apologies.
Public apologies aren’t coming only from individuals. Many leaders or representatives of organizations such as U.S. Women’s Gymnastics, companies like Starbucks, and universities like Michigan State have been compelled to acknowledge their failures and apologize. Individual churches, as well as large religious organizations and institutions, have also been forced to respond to publicly exposed sin.
As with personal relationships, a genuine public apology from an institution is the first step of repair.
However, even when completely voluntary and sincere, more than just a succinct “I’m sorry” is needed to repair and bring healing, especially when the actions or words are highly offensive or deeply hurtful. To put it bluntly, a major wrong isn’t made right by a drive-thru apology.
5 Features of an Effective Apology
Authors Dr. Gary Chapman (When Sorry Isn’t Enough) and Dr. Harriet Lerner (Why Won’t You Apologize?) have each described well the need for, the power of, and the features of an effective apology.
In considering the following recipe for strong apologies, not every apology requires every ingredient and certainly not in this exact sequence.
Name the offense and the offended. Just saying “I’m sorry” is not naming the offense. Instead say, “I’m sorry for the way I spoke harshly to you.”
Own the offense. Don’t minimize the offense, make excuses, or shift blame for it. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke harshly to you. I was upset because of losing the game but that’s no excuse. I was wrong. I crossed a line.”
Empathize with the offended. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke harshly to you. I know that was not only hurtful but embarrassing when our friends witnessed it.”
Express regret for the offense. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke harshly to you. I know that was not only hurtful but embarrassing when our friends witnessed it. You didn’t deserve that. I feel badly about that, and I’m really sorry.”
Ask for forgiveness and offer reassurance. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke harshly to you. I know that was hurtful and embarrassing when our friends witnessed it. I feel badly about that, and I’m really sorry. Please forgive me. That’s not how I should speak to you, and certainly not how I want you to feel. I’ll really try to not let that happen again.”
A recent example of an effective public apology that included some of these features is Thabiti Anyabwile’s message to Beth Moore in response to an open letter she posted on her blog.
Apology’s Second Touch
I regularly observe in my counseling practice that when an injury cuts deeply, a singular apology—though sincere—may be insufficient to bring healing. A follow-up expression may be needed. Seldom are severe emotional wounds instantly healed.
It’s like the blind man in Mark 8 who needed a second touch from Jesus to see clearly. Jesus didn’t say to the man, “Well, my initial touch should’ve been enough to heal you. It’s been enough for everyone else, so the problem is with your response—probably a faith deficit.”
Nor did Jesus say, “Well, fuzzy vision is better than no vision, so just be grateful.”
Instead, when the man’s total blindness improved to blurry sight, Jesus simply touched him again. And I suspect that if the man had said after the second touch, “This is great; everything is clear now. Is everything supposed to be the same gray color?” Jesus would’ve simply touched him a third time.
Humility and Apology in the Healing Cycle
We’re fortunate God has given us the healing cycle for relationships, taking us from wounded to healed, from offense to forgiveness, from broken to restored. Theologian Andrew Murray believed humility is the foundational Christian virtue in which healthy love is rooted and does grow.
Apology requires humility. Pride refuses to apologize because it resists being wrong and it fears losing power and leverage. Humility desires for the relationship to win and uses the power of apology.
RAMON PRESSON (@ramonpresson) is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice near Nashville, Tennessee. He’s a weekly newspaper columnist and the author of a dozen books, including a trilogy of marriage and family titles co-authored with Dr. Gary Chapman.
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