The power of an apology
Sometimes a tough conversation spirals out of control— intentions or words are misunderstood, people become angry, feelings get hurt. There’s only one way to move forward: someone has to say they’re sorry.
Apologizing isn’t easy. It can be painful and awkward, but that’s the point. When we apologize, the other person sees us struggling, knows we feel uncomfortable, and their compassion response kicks in. Sincere apologies are powerful agents for reconciliation.
I have found that a heartfelt apology can work miracles in a conversation and I have, at times, apologized for things for which I was not responsible. I’ve sometimes thought I’d like to take an apology tour around the world. Not the Apology Tour Barack Obama was accused of undertaking, but a journey from city to city to tell people that I’m sorry for the hard things they’ve been through.
Here’s an example. I was in an airport recently, reading a book called Blood at the Root, preparing for an interview with the author. The book is about the expulsion of all of the African Americans in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912. Armed whites in the county used threats, violence, and fire to drive every black citizen outside the borders, and the county remained all-white for at least seventy-five years.
A blond woman sitting across from me asked about the book and we started talking. She tells me she grew up in an all-white town. She says she remembered when a Mexican family moved in and that people were awful to them. Cashiers at the grocery store wouldn’t look at them or speak to them. They would just woodenly ring up their items and wait in silence for the family to pay.
The woman tells me her parents said terrible things about that family, things that she now realizes were racist and hateful and totally unfounded. But, she says, she doesn’t understand why people blame her for what her parents did. “It’s just as racist to assume that I’m racist,” she says.
“Just because I want everyone to come to the US legally doesn’t mean I’m racist,” she continues. “I don’t care what color the person is or where they come from, I just think they should follow the law. People have said the most awful things to me.”
At that point, I moved to sit in the seat next to her, looked her in the eye, and said, “I’m so sorry. I really am. I’m sorry that you’ve been made to feel like you can’t express your opinion without being called names and I’m so sorry that people said terrible things to you.” Because I was watching for it, I saw the woman’s shoulders relax. I saw the muscles around her eyes relax and I saw her mouth fall into a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Thanks for saying that. I just feel so awful. I feel like I can’t say anything.”
We ended up chatting for another twenty minutes or so before Delta began boarding my flight. As I stood to go, she thanked me again for listening to her and told me she now understood how her views might be offensive to some people. “I never thought about how I was saying it. I just thought about what was in my heart,” she said. “I didn’t hear it from the other side.”
I think she walked away with a broader perspective on the issue, although I can’t really say for sure. But I know that I came away with more empathy for her and those who share her views. I also felt the pleasure of having given a sincere apology and having witnessed its transformative power firsthand.
Apologies can come from anyone if they are both heartfelt and honest. After years of indigenous people demanding an apology from the Australian government for its past horrific treatment of them, the nation established May 26 as “National Sorry Day.” That might sound like a woefully insufficient response to a long-standing, systemic assault, but it provides a platform each year for the government to acknowledge the harm they caused and apologize for it.
Apologies are magic. That’s how I’ve come to see them, even though scientists have identified the real, non-magical effects that conciliatory gestures have in our brains. Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, has done groundbreaking work on apologies and forgiveness. He says people wrongly assume that humans are innately selfish and mean. “Humans need relationship partners,” McCullough says, “so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict.”
When someone has been wronged, their brain experiences a state of chemically induced turmoil. That person may try for years to satisfactorily resolve an unresolved emotional conflict, even subconsciously. Michael McCullough runs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, where he studies behaviors like revenge and self-control and gratitude. He can explain the purpose of apologies much better than I. Here’s an excerpt of his interview on the NPR show On Being, with host Krista Tippett:
mr. mccullough: If you look at the brain of somebody who has just been harmed by someone—they’ve been ridiculed or harassed or insulted—we can put those people into technology that allows us to see what their brains are doing, right? So we can look at sort of what your brain looks like on revenge. It looks exactly like the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a sweet drink to drink or somebody who’s hungry who’s about to get a piece of chocolate to eat.
tippett: It’s like the satisfaction of a craving?
mr. mccullough: It is exactly like that. It is literally a craving. What you see is high activation in the brain’s reward system. . . . The desire for revenge does not come from some sick dark part of how our minds operate. It is a craving to solve a problem and accomplish a goal.
Even if you don’t believe someone has cause to feel wronged, it doesn’t change the intensity of the emotion in that person’s mind. They crave resolution and relief. You can give them at least a taste of that.
Three things happen when you apologize sincerely. First, you acknowledge someone’s anger or sadness. You validate that they have reason to be angry or that their anger is real. This often disarms them. Research shows that, after the apology, they no longer see you as a threat or as someone who might again harm them. They drop their defensive posture. And finally, when you’re successful, their brain prepares to forgive. They may even be able to move on from the source of injury entirely. Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma recovery, writes in her book The Power of Apology, “While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.”
An apology can also confer upon the person offering it tremendous positive effects. In order to apologize to someone, you must first understand why they’re upset. That requires that you put yourself in their shoes for just a moment, and we know that such an exercise increases empathy.
In order for me to apologize to the woman in the airport, I had to imagine what it felt like to her to be called a racist. She was obviously very hurt by that word. What was it like to feel unjustly insulted? While I listened to her and encouraged her to continue explaining her perspective, I tried to see it all through her eyes. I’m a better person for having done that, and it was not difficult at all for me to say to her, sincerely, “I’m sorry. I can see that must be hurtful and I’m sorry.”
Let me emphasize that we’re not talking about extreme circumstances here, but the average conversation you may have on a daily basis. I’m not suggesting you apologize to a murderer or anyone else who’s committed an act of terrible cruelty. I’m not talking about a conversation with Pol Pot, I’m talking about a chat with a stranger in the coffee shop or a coworker in the lunchroom.
In the end, it really didn’t matter if I agreed with the woman in the airport or not. What mattered is that I acknowledged her pain and allowed her the opportunity to speak about it. She dropped her defensive armor and listened with an open mind for what she said was the first time in her life, and she walked away feeling understood instead of angry. Perhaps she’ll be more open to similar conversations in the future.
All of that because she struck up a conversation with a stranger who offered the apology she’d been seeking for decades. With all due respect to science—that sure seems like a little bit of magic to me.
- Celeste Headlee is the author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, from which this article is excerpted. Featured PHOTO Credit: igor kisselev