Lately I have been pondering the difficult business of apologies.
One of the controversies of the recent London Paralympics involved the South African double below-knee amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius had fought for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes, against claims that his blades gave him an advantage over them; and this summer he competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But in the Paralympic T44 200m he finished in second, behind Alan Oliveira – a shock result. Interviewed immediately after the race, he claimed that Oliveira’s blades gave the Brazilian sprinter the unfair advantage of a longer stride, dismissing the achievement of another athlete who had always looked up to him, and being dismissive of the International Paralympic Committee. In fact, Pistorius didn’t have a leg to stand on: not only did he run the 200m in fewer strides than Oliveira, suggesting that Pistorius had the longer stride (and anyway, blades are scaled to the athlete wearing them, and no-one claims that Usain Bolt should be penalised for having a longer stride than his competitors) but Pistorius ran faster in his semi-final than either athlete ran in the final. The following day Pistorius apologised for the timing of his comments. Not for the comments themselves; for the timing. So, when is an apology not an apology?
Then, and with the Paralympic Games as back-drop, the German-based company responsible for the morning-sickness drug Thalidomide issued an apology – for the first time, fifty years after the drug was withdrawn – along with an appeal for understanding and forgiveness: an apology deemed insincere and insulting by some campaigners but welcomed conditionally by others, who have extended the invitation to further progress towards reconciliation.
Yesterday, the Hillsborough Independent Panel published its Report into the Hillsborough Disaster and its aftermath. Yesterday and today have seen a flurry of apologies made by politicians, senior police officers, journalists. Some have been welcomed, others rejected as too little too late.
Of course, there are almost daily examples I could draw on. When it comes to apologies, it would seem that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
So here are some thoughts:
Saying sorry is perhaps the hardest thing we ever do.
We generally demand a swifter and fuller apology of others than we are willing to give to others...
The more we trust the person or people to whom we owe an apology to have our best interests at heart and to be looking for the win-win of reconciliation rather than the win-over-you of vindication, the fuller the apology we will be able to give.
Likewise, the less we trust the person or people to whom we owe an apology, the more guarded and limited our apology is likely to be.
Offer the apology that you are able to offer.
Be as clear as you can as to the apology you are making.
Be as honest as you can about the apology that you owe but are not (yet) able to make. This opens the door for a degree of reconciliation, which opens the door to the fuller completion of the apology.
Be as generous as you can in accepting another person’s apology. Is it really too little too late, or has it taken great courage to get this far while needing something in return in order to go further?
An apology that is not freely given is empty, so ask for an apology by all means, but don’t dictate what it should contain: if you do, you rob yourself of the apology you are looking for, and the other person of the apology that they might otherwise be able to move towards in time.
Only the person making an apology can truly know whether they are being sincere or not. Passing judgement on their sincerity makes you less human than you were created to be, because it builds a barrier between us. Accepting an insincere apology does not reveal you to be gullible; it reveals you to be the more fully whole person (at least in this instance), by denying the opportunity to build a barrier and, instead, moving for reconciliation.
Our unwillingness or inability to accept an apology reveals the extent to which we harbour brokenness – and, therefore, the extent to which we need to accept the apology being held out to us.
Don’t retract an apology – and don’t retract the acceptance of an apology.
Don’t apologise more than once (unless you need to apologise to more than one person or group and can’t do that on one occasion), unless you are able to extend your apology beyond what you have apologised for. An apology – whether accepted or rejected – is an end to the matter (though it may need to be followed by taking consequences, and/or by attempting to make amends). To keep apologising for the same thing is to believe that we are unworthy of forgiveness or acceptance. Likewise, to demand that someone apologises repeatedly is to demonstrate that we do not believe that they are worthy of forgiveness or acceptance (and if that is so, that is our problem, not theirs).
Accepting an apology is perhaps the hardest thing we ever do.