Not sure when to apologize?

The art of timing an apology
My parents are visiting for the holidays. Our small apartment, normally housing two humans and a canine, is now bustling with vim and vigour — accompanied by a massive loss of structure and routine (my concentration is going through countless landmines of interruptions). My father, a busybody at the best of times, is finding it particularly difficult to enjoy his “downtime” — already, he has started to deep-clean the apartment, spoil the furry grandchild, cook meals, and keep abreast of both local and global news right as it happens.

Dad and I live on different continents, so sharing space allows plenty of opportunity to ruffle each other’s feathers. Irrespective of the love shared, no one can push buttons better than family —they put them there! Elizabeth Gilbert summarises this well:”I had a great teacher in India who said to me, ‘If you think you’re spiritual and evolved and enlightened, go home for Christmas and see how it goes.”

After more than one familial conflict in the past week, I felt encouraged by Gilbert to specifically explore apologies — not simply to pre-empt the need for them when sharing living quarters with family, but to investigate my traditions, values and the cultural significance around apologies.

Every culture seems to have customs and traditions of apology. The custom of Jidan is long honoured in Japan; Samoans practice a ritual apology called Ifoga; and there is Yom Kippur in Judaism. Growing up, many of us were taught to apologise immediately when in the wrong. Depending on your cultural background, you will have your own predispositions around offering apologies.

Have you ever thought about the role of timing in an apology? When is the ideal moment to apologise? Is apologising immediately the only course? Or should one wait? Do we sometimes apologise without reflecting on our actions and consequences?

There are of course circumstances when an immediate apology is warranted – spill a drink on someone, step on someone’s toe, your child puts a baseball through a neighbour’s window. In such situations, it takes a split second to recognise that it’s appropriate to apologise immediately. However, in the case of serious transgressions, an immediate apology can be less effective and seem disingenuous. It might even suggest panic and fear, rather than regret and repentance.

I have a friend whose extended family includes an embarrassing drunk. Every celebration, this family member’s attendance leads to another drunken breakdown and embarrassment for the family. This, of course, is followed by an apology the next morning, only for the situation to repeat months later.A good apology always includes a reparation of some kind. It must make a situation right, or at least prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. If we find ourselves circling a loop of repeated mistakes and prompt apologies, could it be because we’re serving our apologies half-baked? In order to truly learn from our mistakes, do we need to marinate in them for a while? Do apologies require some time to reflect?

Why the delay?

According to Aaron Lazare, author of “On Apology,”Timing is an important and complex ingredient in delivering effective apologies.” In his book “Wait,” Frank Partnoy explains this further. There is a wisdom in waiting before extending an apology after a serious personal transgression for two reasons:

  1. A snap apology can prevent the offending party from expressing how they feel. Think about a situation from your life when someone extended an apology without acknowledging how you felt; it tends to only exasperate the situation. Once a transgression has been committed, it takes a while for the victim to gain perspective with regard to their own emotions and fathom the situation at hand. Most importantly, time gives victims an opportunity to use their voice and be heard.

  2. Delay in extending an apology also allows for more information to come to light. The victim gets an opportunity to learn about who, why, what, where and when. More information results in enhanced understanding of a wrongful conduct. It’s like the process of separating the wheat from chaff. Time gives victims an opportunity to grasp the situation, thereby making the apology more credible and satisfying.

What to include in a sincere apology

There is no real formula for determining exactly when to apologise. However, according to Lazare, an effective apology contains four parts:

  1. Acknowledging that you did it
  2. Explaining what happened
  3. Expressing remorse
  4. Repairing the damage as much as you can

Exclude qualifiers and caveats

A key to communicating an effective apology is removing any escape-clauses like “if” and “but.” Here are examples of bad apologies (with likely reactions within brackets):

  • I apologize if I offended anyone (“If you offended anyone? IF?!?”)
  • I’m sorry but traffic was really bad today (“Really? Like on every other day?”)

Adding qualifiers and caveats ends up diluting the power of an apology and infuriating its recipients.


How to apologize: OODA loop to the rescue

According to Partnoy, a delay when extending an apology can benefit conflict management. The cycle of delay in an ongoing apology resembles an OODA loop. OODA, or ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act,’is a cycle of behaviour developed for fighter pilots in combat. The OODA sequence requires that you OBSERVE a rapidly changing environment, ORIENT yourself based on these observations, DECIDE what to do, and finally ACT by following through on your decisions. Partnoy writes, “Most people should think for a minute first about when to apologise. Admit the wrong, and then listen [OBSERVE]. Stop and consider how and when to take the next step and explain what happened [ORIENT & DECIDE]. Take plenty of time. And then, at the last possible moment, say you’re sorry and begin trying to pick up the pieces [ACT].” The cycle repeats as necessary.

The OODA loop provides effective feedback that prevents us from getting stuck in a time loop of repeated mistakes and ineffective behaviours. It facilitates forward momentum.Life is messy. We often find ourselves in situations where we are partly to blame. Let’s say we are responsible for part of a problem – say only one percent; someone else is responsible for the remaining 99 percent. This situation commonly leads to a stalemate, as each party, wanting to protect itself (ego, resources, safety), waits for the other to ‘fess up first. This can be toxic because unresolved grievances tend to worsen over time.

OODA thinking can show a way forward here. Observing the situation (this includes observing our own thoughts and feelings) can correct our orientation. We could then decide to be the first to express regret for our one percent responsibility, breaking the stalemate.

Create a simple plan

It’s the new year, we hope you’ve had plenty of reason to celebrate and have more to look forward to in 2017. We also hope you’ve had an opportunity to balance your emotional account. Where do apologies figure in? Balancing could start with a simple question – “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”

In your My Wellness Journal, create an “After Apology Review.” This can help create an effective feedback loop and enable you to move forward.

1. How well did I achieve my intended outcome? Did I prevent a situation from getting worse?
2. What opportunities, actions or follow-ups did I identify from the apology?
3. How effective was my apology, and did it have an impact on the other person’s behaviour?
4. How do I feel after offering an apology? Do I feel a sense of atonement or emotional release?

5. What could I do differently next time to get better results?

But what if apologizing isn’t working?

In spite of our best intentions and sincerest apologies, damage done can sometimes seem irreparable. An apology is not a quick fix for everything to be hunky dory; sometimes the people we wrong may never fully heal. However, remember an effective apology shows you’re taking responsibility. This can strengthen your self-confidence, integrity, sense of compassion and wisdom. We’re all bound to infuriate each other at times; putting an effort towards devising effective apologies can help us become better communicators so that we can learn and grow from these experiences.

My all time favourite philosopher is Alain de Botton; I often read his post How We Need To Keep Growing Up. Botton writes, “We know how to celebrate someone’s fortieth birthday, but we would – in a wiser world – also know how to have public celebrations of the moment when a person had finally developed the skill of apologising or of recognising that the bad behaviour of other people usually has more to do with anxiety and fear than nastiness.”

Thus, learning how to extend effective apologies is like a crucial developmental milestone. It helps unravel the “ever-tricky and unfinished business of becoming that elusive thing: a real grown-up.”

Here are some good resources for additional reading on this topic:
Words To Grow By

Alain de Botton

“We know how to celebrate someone’s fortieth birthday, but we would – in a wiser world – also know how to have public celebrations of the moment when a person had finally developed the skill of apologising or of recognising that the bad behaviour of other people usually has more to do with anxiety and fear than nastiness.”