We all want an apology when we feel we’ve been wronged.
We’re also clear about what we want from an apology; to be specific, meaningful, and timely.
But what about how we receive it?
What’s our role as the person receiving the apology and how does it affect the resolution to conflict?
These are questions I’ve reflected on for years. I’ve done research on them, and I’ve applied the approaches I’ve discovered in my work and life.
To answer the questions it’s important to be clear on what an apology is and what it’s not.
An apology is an acknowledgment by the person offering it that their behaviour, actions, and words have had a specific, negative impact on you.
An apology is not necessarily agreeing with the wronged party. It also doesn’t mark the end of a conflict.
Apologizing is usually awkward and imperfect. It feels uncomfortable.
It’s also offered when often, there are high expectations to get it right.
This means courage and vulnerability are required to make an apology.
With the stakes so high, how we receive an apology matters.
How to Receive an Apology
Think about it for a moment: How do you receive an apology?
My guess is it sounds something like this:
“Don’t worry about it.”
“There’s no need to apologize.”
What I’ve learned from my research, especially through Dr. Harriet Lerner’s work (she’s a clinical psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize?), is that these responses dismiss or minimize the apology.
This is the same apology that someone took the time to prepare and had the courage to say out loud!
Have you ever thought about it that way? I hadn’t until I engaged in her work.
She explains why we do it – we want to end an uncomfortable moment but in doing so, we skip over the part the apologizer has grappled with – pushing through the discomfort to do the right thing.
Dr. Lerner says, “It’s important to resist the temptation to cancel the effort at repair that a genuine apology is.”
So, how do you receive an apology?
According to her decades of research and practice, Dr. Lerner advises receiving an apology like this: Thank you for the apology. – and you stop there.
What are the consequences of continuing past that sentence?
There are tendencies to shame people (e.g. Thank you for your apology but you should’ve known better!) or to heap judgment on them (e.g. Thanks for the apology but is that really all you’ve got?).
Apologies Don’t End Conflict
Apologizing can bring a simmering conflict back up to a boil.
How you receive an apology can prevent a conflict from exploding and, more importantly, lead to transformation.
Remember, saying, “Thank you for your apology.”, is a form of acknowledgment. It’s not an agreement, and it doesn’t remove accountability to meaningfully address the issue.
Acknowledgment helps cool down the temperature of conflict and creates the space for dialogue.
An apology does not end a conflict. It’s a required step to resolve and transform it.
Putting It into Practice
I started to practice apologizing like Dr. Lerner recommends. I gotta tell you, it’s hard, and the results are fascinating!
It really holds everyone accountable.
How the apologizer reacts to how an apology is received provides information on how to proceed.
If they’re genuine, both of you can move on to discussing what meaningful steps need to be taken next, and what are shared expectations.
If there’s no response from the apologizer, it’s not a bad thing. People need time to process. You do too.
This processing time includes dealing with difficult emotions and reflecting on the next steps that need to be taken.
If you can both get to a point where you work on a solution together, then the apology has served its purpose. It helps move the dialogue forward.
If the apology is not followed by dialogue and taking specific, meaningful, and timely action then the apology wasn’t intended to acknowledge impact or be a part of a process to conflict resolution and transformation.
This month people are observing National Indigenous Day in Canada, Pride and Juneteenth.
Many people and organizations have, are, and will say, I’m sorry. Notice how it’s received AND what steps are taken to continue the process to a meaningful resolution.
And try it yourself.
As I always say when trying something new, do so in low-stakes circumstances with people you love, trust, and won’t hurt you on purpose. You can be transparent and tell them you’re trying this. You can invite this person to work with you and reflect on how it went. Ask them how it felt when you thanked them for their apology.
Learning how to receive an apology will take practice.
It requires changing expectations for a perfect apology to an imperfect but meaningful one.
It will also require time to reflect and apply what you’ve learned from practicing.
In the context of events this month, an acknowledgment of a genuine apology can create the space for all of us to imperfectly go through the process of addressing hundreds of years of discrimination as long as those apologizing and those receiving apologies act genuinely, meaningfully, and in good faith.
If you are looking for training for your team on Mindful Communication and How to Give Feedback, Receive it an Act on It, let’s chat. Book a chat with me here, and visit my website for more information about me and my approach. You can also send an email to email@example.com.