The Art of the Apology: Focus On Repair

I am in the 22nd hour of fasting for Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of atonement. The thinking is that by withholding all food and water, we clear our minds to focus on our behaviors from the past year. We make apologies for our mistakes, and we promise to do better in the new year. For those unfamiliar with our calendar, Jews are beginning the year 5778.

With intense hunger, my hands have grown cold; my legs have grown shaky. It makes me think of the people around the world who suffer from severe hunger, the people who endure days or weeks on end without filling their bellies. I am finding it difficult to pull through the waning hours of my 24-hour fast. My heart hurts for those who live this way all the time.

The hour is late. I am fatigued and lightheaded, hungry and thirsty. I have spent the day thinking of the mistakes I’ve made this year. I’ve apologized to my children for the times I was impatient, distracted, and irritable. I’ve apologized to my husband for all the times that I gloated after being proven right in an argument, for all the times I was short-tempered. I’ve asked how I can make it better.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of apologies. It’s one of the topics I cover the most often in my bullying prevention trainings. The truth is, a forced apology is quite meaningless.

So how best should you respond after you have made a mistake? It’s human nature to become defensive when called out on poor behavior. People usually rush to justify their actions and defend their decisions. I see this time and again with both children and adults.

As such, I focus less on starting with the words, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I like to hear how someone was impacted by another person’s mistake. How were they harmed? What will make it better? Let the apologies come later; they will have more meaning.

These types of questions are called restorative questions, and they originate from a philosophy called restorative justice. The intent is not to punish offenders; rather, the intent is to get offenders to understand the impact of their actions on others, and to find a way to repair any damage that was done. In essence, they learn to empathize with the victims and the broader community, and they learn to right their wrongs. They learn to listen.

Restorative responses also provide a voice to the victims. They get the opportunity to talk about their pain and their suffering. They get to tell their stories and express the full range of ways in which they have been harmed, including emotional tolls such as anxiety and depression. In working through their pain, they are more likely to find peace and healing.

If you would like to move toward restorative responses in your life, use these questions as a guideline.

To the person who messed up, learn to say, “OOPS!” Ask:

  • What happened? What was the impact of your action?
  • Who has been affected/harmed?
  • What needs to happen to restore the damage?

To the person who was harmed, learn to say, “OUCH!” Ask:

  • How have you been affected/harmed?
  • What’s the hardest part for you?
  • What would you like to see happen?

I will carry these reflections with me as Yom Kippur comes to a close. May all who seek peace and comfort find it.

Carrie Goldman is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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