The Most Important Part of an Apology
The most important part of an apology is the acknowledgment.
The acknowledgment represents the recognition of a victim, a perpetrator, and the offense that connects them both.
Acknowledgment is the most important part because it puts the perpetrator and the victim on the same page from which they can begin to heal and grow. Without it, the victim remains invisible and powerless, making any apology sound dull and fake.
Let's take this example generated by ChatGPT (an artificial intelligence model capable of doing really impressive things):
At first sight, this looks like a perfectly valid apology. But let's break it down:
- "I'm sorry for what I said earlier, I was out of line": Here the perpetrator recognizes guilt for his actions. That's ok but it's also a bit vague.
- "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings": The perpetrator talks about intention. While understanding the perpetrator's intention can be relevant for the victim, it often comes as a defense mechanism in the form of: "I didn't mean to, therefore you shouldn't feel bad". But someone telling you they didn't mean to hurt you doesn't make you less hurt.
- "Can you please forgive me?": Asking for forgiveness might show your desire to repair your relationship, but doing it too soon might come across as trying to rush your vindication.
Overall, this apology does a very poor job in terms of acknowledgment. Every statement revolves mostly around the perpetrator, and it's not clear enough what was done and the impact it had. The victim is almost invisible in it.
Let's try to fix the apology above:
"I'm very sorry for saying that you were good for nothing during our meeting with the team. I unfairly undermined your effort in front of everybody despite your commitment and hard work. I have disrespected you, and I'm sorry for that"
This apology instead:
- Provides a concrete picture of what the perpetrator is apologizing for.
- It focuses on the impact those words had, not on the original intention
- It shows regret instead justification
In other words, acknowledgment is about:
- The offense in the most concrete way possible
- The victim and the impact done onto them
- The perpetrator and his regret for having done so
Acknowledgment requires a common narrative
Providing a sincere apology in a timely manner is paramount, but rushing to do it is counterproductive when you don't have a clear picture of the negative impact your actions had on the victim.
Understanding and listening to the victim's perspective is key to providing an apology that brings reconciliation about. In fact, the best apologies feel like the victim is speaking through the perpetrator. They represent them.
The following is an excerpt from Justin Trudeau's apology after photos of him doing blackface became public:
"What I did, hurt them. Hurt people who shouldn’t have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity…darkening your face regardless of the context of the circumstances is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface… I didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day…I have to take responsibility for mistakes that hurt people who I thought I was an ally… I appreciate calling it makeup but it was blakface and that is just not right."
As you can see, his words place special emphasis on the victims. It sounds like he understands them, or at least has made an effort to.
Apologies are ongoing conversations
While you might feel proud of coming up with a very nice apology after carefully listening to the victim, your job is not finished yet.
One of the reasons good apologies are rare is that most people see them as one-time statements as opposed to ongoing conversations.
Acknowledgment will allow the victim to heal, but from there, the conversation could steer in many directions:
- Understanding the perpetrator's intention and perspective
- Making a plan on how to avoid it next time
- Discussing a potential compensation
- Reviewing the topic in a week/month from now
- Apologizing to those indirectly affected
It will be up to you and the victim to lead this conversation together. Some victims (like me) might put more emphasis on #2. While others might be particularly curious about #1.
Apologizing is hard
One of the behaviors that get in the way of properly acknowledging the harm, is defending ourselves.
Acknowledging an offense is not easy because it tampers with our identity and threatens who we think we are (or so it feels). That's why most apologies will appeal to justifications such as: "I didn't mean it", "The circumstances pushed me to do it", or "That's not who I am". But defending yourself takes the spotlight off the victim, and that's exactly the opposite of acknowledgment.
Lower your defenses and embrace the opportunity to improve yourself by learning a lesson.
Disagreeing with the victim
Not everyone who claims to be a victim is one.
If your relentless curiosity to understand the victim’s perspective leads you nowhere, then simply agree to disagree. But be careful, your identity might be trying to defend itself by refusing to recognize a mistake.
So before objecting to the victim’s argument, make a proactive effort to put down your defenses. If necessary take some time to reflect, ask someone neutral for their perspective, or find a mediator. Just don’t challenge the victim’s argument without pondering on it long enough.
Empowering the victim
Acknowledgment revolves around building a coherent narrative that explains why two people acted and felt in the way they did.
Danielle Sered (founder of Common Justice) said:
“Trauma distills down to powerlessness. Which means that the opposite of trauma isn't help, the opposite of trauma is power”.
If this is true, then acknowledgment is ultimately about empowering the victim, giving them a voice, and making them visible. It's about fostering forgiveness.
Thanks for reading! ❤️
If you are curious, below I analyze some popular apologies on the internet from the best one to the worst ones:
- Justin Trudeau (2019): An apology that does a great job of highlighting the impact on the victims. The perpetrators that understand the victim’s pain so well that they can educate others are the ones that have learned a lesson. The emphasis Justin puts on why blackfacing is bad is clear. He takes the spotlight from time to time, but it's rather mild.
- Jimmy Fallon (2020): This apology could have placed more emphasis on why blackface is racist and the impact it has on the victims. He did nevertheless a good job at not defending his actions.
- Jonah Hill (2014): Publicly praised as a great apology. While I do agree the overall apology feels sincere and honest, some statements feel like justifications for his actions: The antagonizing paparazzi, his intentions, and his support for the LGBTQ community. There's very little clarity on the impact his actions have on the victims.
- Will Smith (2022): Unfortunately this apology is pretty weak as it only addresses the (main) victim for about 15 seconds in a video lasting almost 6 minutes. It's an apology that mostly revolves around him.
- The episode called "Apologies" by the Netflix series Explained was very enlightening for writing this article.
- To Anna Mikulics and Maria Chamarina for proof-reading the ideas mentioned here.