I wanna talk today about how to accept an apology. This may seem like a very simple thing, but often we go about it all wrong.
What we have to understand is that an apology has two intentions. One is the intention to correct one’s behavior. The other is to make amends with the person was offended. This might seem very obvious, but the reason I mention it is because some apologies only come with the second of these intentions. A genuine apology has behind it the intention to take responsibility for one’s behavior, and to change that behavior, whereas an insincere apology is only concerned with gaining the other person’s approval and forgiveness.
So if the person is not actually taking responsibility and trying to change their behavior, this means it’s likely the behavior will continue. And so long as they can get your forgiveness, they have an excuse to commit the same offense again and again.
When someone apologizes it may appear that they genuinely feel bad about what they’ve done and that they’re being sensitive to your feelings, but it may actually be that they’re really more concerned with their own self-image. I’m not saying this is always the case. But sometimes the person is just trying to win back your approval of them, for their own sake. They may not really be concerned with how you’ve been affected by their behavior. They may be more concerned with how they’ve been affected by your anger toward them. In other words, they’re more concerned with their own feelings.
So it’s important, when accepting an apology, to be clear about the other person’s intentions, and about their perception of the situation. We can be very quick to respond by saying something like, “It’s okay,” even when it’s not okay. And if all we say is, “it’s okay,” the other person may interpret this to mean that their inconsiderate or disrespectful behavior is acceptable.
If we’re a very sensitive person, seeing another’s discomfort can cause us to feel deeply uncomfortable. We may want the person apologizing to feel better, so that we can feel better, so we try to comfort them by telling them “it’s okay.” But if they truly did something wrong, then they have every reason to be uncomfortable. And we should allow them that discomfort, because it will help them to resolve the situation. But we don’t have to share in their discomfort. We have our own to deal with.
We shouldn’t be in a hurry to resolve the situation. I’m not saying that we should allow it to fester or that we should withhold forgiveness. But what I’m saying is that we should take time to discuss the situation. It’s not as simple as someone saying “I’m sorry” and replying “I forgive you.” It’s important that the other person truly understands what they did wrong. And I’m also not suggesting that we explain to them what they did wrong, but that we allow a space for them to explain it to us in their own words, from their own perspective, and with their own understanding.
So when someone is apologizing, we might try to respond differently. We might say something like, “I appreciate you taking responsibility for the situation,” followed by, “What can you do to change your behavior?” or “How do you intend to do things differently in the future?” or “How can you assure me that this wont happen again?” Or we might simply ask “What are you apologizing for?” This gives them the opportunity to explain, which means they have to really consider the impact of their behavior, if they haven’t already. And we should allow them the space to speak, rather than having to explain to them what they did. If they truly understand, they won’t need you to explain it. And if you feel you have to explain, then it means they don’t truly understand.
So this is a good time to be silent and let them speak. And if they don’t say anything immediately, you don’t have to pester them. Just give them a moment. Just look them in the eye and wait. That silence might feel awkward for you, but imagine how much more awkward it is for them. They’ll feel compelled to fill that silence, so if you just have some patience, they’ll begin talking.
Now, it’s also very important to pay attention to their explanation. Are they taking responsibility? Are they seeing the folly in their behavior? Are they showing a genuine intention to correct their behavior? Or are they making excuses? Because sometimes a person will say “I’m sorry, but…” And what this means is that they’re deflecting blame. They might try to shift the focus onto someone else or some other situation, or they might even try to shift the blame onto you. And it may be that the way they behaved was in reaction to another situation, but they still need to take full responsibility for that reaction before you can accept their apology.
Now, suppose that they’re unwilling to take responsibility. They may say “I’m sorry,” but you’re not convinced that their apology is sincere, or that they really understand the impact of their behavior. It’s really important to have some follow through on an apology, because it’s not enough to simply say “I’m sorry.” The person needs to show that they’re genuinely regretful, and that they intend to change.
If you’re not convinced of this, you don’t have to accept their apology. And you can be clear about it. You can tell them, “I’m not convinced that you really understand the impact of your behavior,” or “I’m not convinced that this wont happen again.”
And I’m not suggesting that you withhold forgiveness. That’s an entirely different thing, which I’ll talk about in another article. You can forgive someone without accepting their behavior or their insincere apology. But it’s important that the other person understands, one way or another, that their behavior is not acceptable. And if they’re unwilling to change, that doesn’t mean you put up with it. You can chose to remove yourself from the situation if need be.
But let’s suppose that the apology is sincere, and the person has shown very clearly that they have every intention to change their behavior and to do things differently from now on. At this point we should be willing to accept the apology with loving gratitude. We should thank them for making the effort and intention to correct themselves and resolve the situation. This positive reinforcement will serve as encouragement for them to see it through.
Now we might find it difficult to accept an apology if we haven’t fully forgiven the other person, but accepting and forgiving are not the same thing. We can accept an apology without full forgiveness, but we need to be clear about it. We need to let the other person know exactly how we feel, while at the same time having the willingness to accept responsibility for our feelings.
Forgiveness is easier said than done. So even after we’ve accepted an apology, it’s natural that there may still be some residual resentment. And just as they have taken the initiative to work on their behavior, we should also take the initiative to resolve our own feelings of resentment. We don’t have to pretend that everything is suddenly all better if it’s not. We might express to them that while we appreciate and accept their apology, we still need some time to process our own feelings about the situation.
Forgiveness doesn’t always come spontaneously. It can often be a process, which I will discuss in more detail in another article. But for now, it is enough to accept the other persons willingness and intention to change their behavior.