Reconciliation and Apologies

Sometimes we may have a hard time showing remorse. It can be hard to find it within ourselves to take the initiative and offer a straight upfront apology.

This can also be true of the person who we feel has harmed us. It might be very difficult for them to admit their error, especially if they are afraid they will be attacked by us if they do. If we insist on an apology before we forgive someone, we may be blocking the process. Our forgiveness of them may be the very thing which enables them to apologize. We might insist on an apology before reconciling with someone, but we need to be careful that we are not holding back as a form of vengeance and that it is a genuine attempt to protect ourselves.

If we are the ‘wrongdoer’, we may feel very ashamed and shame seems to be one of the harder emotions for most us to deal with. We may be hoping that they did not notice our misdemeanor, or if we are the ‘victim’ the ‘wrongdoer’ might be hoping that we were not hurt or offended.

If it is an important relationship, it can be well worth making it easier for a person we need to forgive to reconnect with us in a neutral situation. People may show remorse by being particularly helpful and considerate and by going out of their way to be good to us rather than an upfront apology.

We may ourselves may find ourselves doing this when we feel that we want the other person to know we care if we hurt them, and want to make amends about a delicate issue by doing so indirectly. In this way we make efforts to be reconciled with them and to be reconciled with our own values and sense of rightness.

Sometimes a situation will be right in our face and we need to sort out the forgiveness and reconciliation quickly. One day I found a very angry and indignant email in my inbox, which had gone to my boss and all the other managers at my work. It was from Joe who was one of the IT support staff whom I managed. Joe was a fiery character and in his email he was complaining rather bluntly and bitterly about a mistake he felt I had made. In his email he went on to say that anyone who could do such a thing was not suitable to be a manager and so on. Not a pleasant thing to read especially knowing that my boss and co-managers were reading it too!

I had a meeting with Joe and pointed out that when any of the other managers asked about the IT team I always spoke constructively and said what a good team we had and how well everyone worked together. I also mentioned that I had defended Joe’s recently and spoke up for him when one of the other managers had asked whether Joe had been the cause of a problem in of one the departments. I asked him to bear that in mind and said, “Can you understand why I was not happy seeing someone who I have defended broadcast about a mistake I had made to all the managers, including my boss, instead of talking to me about it beforehand?”. At first he defended his action, but eventually he said he got the point and said he could understand how I felt. He understood it even better when I added that managers are more likely to react against someone who attacks another manager, and close ranks against the attacker, as they worry that the attacker is going to have a go at them next. I pointed out that I may well have to defend him because of his email about me, but I would do so. After some more of this sort of discussion Joe was beginning to look a bit horrified about sending that email, so I told him not to worry about it and that I would patch things up with the other managers if needed.

I got on fairly well with Joe after that so there was some reconciliation, but I not completely sure that he had really changed. I thought maybe he had just got better at keeping himself in check.

An interesting thing about the story of Joe is that it was possible to have some reconciliation simply because his behaviour changed – at least towards me. I left that job after some months and later heard that Joe got into trouble for swearing at colleagues and even clients. His underlying attitude had not really changed, but it had still been possible to create a working relationship with him.

Such reconciliations may depend on the communications skills we can muster at the time. I did not challenge Joe directly and say that I thought what he did was wrong. I mainly just asked if he could understand how I felt about it. I did not actually ask him to change or to do anything differently. I just kept gently coming back to saying, “This is how I felt, can you understand that?”. That was the core of what turned the situation around, rather than it blowing up into something worse. Possibly, when he got to saying “Yes” and acknowledged how I felt, this awakened a sense of empathy in him towards me and made it harder for him to cast me in the role of “them”. I was speaking to him the whole time as someone whom I saw as being in the same team as me. I was looking for mutual understanding not to blame or punish.

About a year after I left that job I bumped into Joe socially. He gave me a big hello and also surprised me with a big hug (that was not exactly his style), so maybe he got something from our interaction after all.